May And Macron's Ridiculous Adventure In Censoring The Internet

from the these-are-bad-ideas,-marc dept

For some observers, struggling UK Prime Minister Theresa May and triumphant French President Emmanuel Macron may seem at somewhat opposite ends of the current political climate. But... apparently they agree on one really, really bad idea: that it's time to massively censor the internet and to blame tech companies if they don't censor enough. We've been explaining for many years why this is a bad idea, but apparently we need to do so again. First, the plan:

The prime minister and Emmanuel Macron will launch a joint campaign on Tuesday to tackle online radicalisation, a personal priority of the prime minister from her time as home secretary and a comfortable agenda for the pair to agree upon before Brexit negotiations begin next week.

In particular, the two say they intend to create a new legal liability for tech companies if they fail to remove inflammatory content, which could include penalties such as fines.

It's no surprise that May is pushing for this. She's been pushing to regulate the internet for quite some time, and it's a core part of her platform (which is a bit "weak and wobbly" as they say these days). But, Macron... well, he's been held up repeatedly as a "friend" to the tech industry, so this has to be seen as a bit of a surprise in the internet world. Of course, there were hints that he might not really be all that well versed in the way technology works when he appeared to support backdoors to encryption. This latest move just confirms an unfortunate ignorance about the technology/internet landscape.

Creating a new legal liability for companies that fail to remove inflammatory content is going to be a massive disaster in many, many ways. It will damage the internet economy in Europe. It will create massive harms to free speech. And, it won't do what they seem to think it will do: it won't stop terrorists from posting propaganda online.

First, a regime that fines companies for failing to remove "inflammatory content" will lead companies to censor broadly, out of fear that any borderline content they leave up may open them up to massive liability. This is exactly how the Great Firewall of China works. The Chinese government doesn't just say "censor bad stuff" it tells ISPs that they'll get fined if they allow bad stuff through. And thus, the ISPs over-censor to avoid leaving anything that might put them at risk online. And, when it comes to free speech, doing something "the way the Chinese do things" tends not to be the best idea.

Second, related to that, once they open up this can of worms, they may not be happy with how it turns out. It's great to say that you don't think "inflammatory content" should be allowed online, but who gets to define "inflammatory" makes a pretty big difference. As we've noted, you always want to design regulations as if the people you trust the least are in power. This is not to say that May or Macron themselves would do this, but would you put it past some politicians in power to argue that online content from political opponents is too "inflammatory" and thus must be removed? What about if the press reveals corruption? That could be considered "inflammatory" as well.

Third, one person's "inflammatory content" is another's "useful evidence." We see this all the time in other censorship cases. I've written before about how YouTube was pressured to take down inflammatory "terrorist videos" in the past, and ended up taking down the account of a human rights group documenting atrocities in Syria. It's easy to say "take down terrorist content!" but it's not always easy to recognize what's terrorist propaganda versus what's people documenting the horrors that the terrorists are committing.

Fourth, time and time again, we've seen the intelligence community come out and argue against this kind of censorship, noting that terrorists posting inflammatory content online is a really useful way to figure out what they're up to. Demanding that platforms take down these useful sources of open source intelligence will actually harm the intelligence community's ability to monitor and stop plans of attack.

Fifth, this move will almost certainly be used by autocratic and dictatorial regimes to justify their own widespread crackdown on free speech. And, sure, they might do that already, but removing the moral high ground can be deeply problematic in diplomatic situations. How can UK or French diplomats push for more freedom of expression in, say, China or Iran, if they're actively putting this in place back home. Sure, you can say that they're different, but the officials from those countries will argue it's the exact same thing: you're censoring the internet to "protect" people from "dangerous content." Well, they'll argue, that's the same thing that we do -- it's just that we have different threats we need to protect against.

Sixth, this will inevitably be bad for innovation and the economy in both countries. Time and time again, we've seen that leaving internet platforms free from liability for the actions of their users is what has helped those companies develop, provide useful services, employ lots of people and generally help create new economic opportunities. With this plan, sure, Google and Facebook can likely figure out some way to censor some content -- and can probably stand the risk of some liability. But pretty much every other smaller platform? Good luck. If I were running a platform company in either country, I'd be looking to move elsewhere, because the cost of complying and the risk of failing to take down content would simply be too much.

Seventh, and finally, it won't work. The "problem" is not that this content exists. The problem is that lots of people out there are susceptible to such content and are interested and/or swayed by it. That's a much more fundamental problem, and censoring such content doesn't do much good. Instead, it tends to only rally up those who were already susceptible to it. They see that the powers-that-be -- who they already don't trust -- find this content "too dangerous" and that draws them in even closer to it. And of course that content will find many other places to live online.

Censoring "bad" content always seems like an easy solution if you haven't actually thought through the issues. It's not a surprise that May hasn't -- but we had hopes that perhaps Macron wouldn't be swayed by the same weak arguments.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 8:42am

    Here's hoping tech giants simply close their shops in France and the UK if these people succeed in their censorship quest and the "French/British" Internet becomes a barren land. No offense meant to the people there but sometimes you need to meet hell to actually work to make things better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 8:57am

      Re:

      And just like the "Right to be Forgotten", this will immediately scope-creep up as "we meant GLOBALLY".

      It will be a sad day indeed when the only site left is ICanHazCheezburger. Then again, that will offend someone.

      OK fine. Back to World War IV. I'm sure I have a modem somewhere...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 14 Jun 2017 @ 9:58am

    Bad Content

    You know, all kinds of GOOD people are very interested in bad content...they want to know who needs help!

    Didn't Techdirt say the solution is more and better speech?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jun 2017 @ 10:25am

    Americans should keep in mind that the UK and France (as well as the rest of Europe, and even Canada) have never had the tradition of freedom of speech. Anything that threatens to upset the established order is going to be smacked down hard. That's the way it's always been, and it seems such centuries-old habits die hard, even in the internet age.

    As French comedian Dieudonne discovered last year, even a silly joke posted on Youtube can result in prison time in the UK.

    https://www.therebel.media/prosecution_of_man_over_nazi_pug_joke_is_un_scottish

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    stderric (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 10:34am

    Could be worse...

    At least they haven't said that they want tech companies to take down inflammatory content while also paying for the right to do so... Then again, Germany hasn't put its two cents in yet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 10:54am

    Between demands for censorship and domestic spying powers, Theresa May has obviously been sampling 1984. Her defense against a copyright lawsuit from George Orwell's estate is that she's creating a transformative work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jun 2017 @ 11:05am

    "opposite ends of the current political climate"

    All governments want more power and control. Freedom for the commoner is something they only accept if forced to do so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 14 Jun 2017 @ 5:08pm

      Re: "opposite ends of the current political climate"

      Governments don't want anything. They're abstractions.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Ukdah, 14 Jun 2017 @ 6:33pm

        Re: Re: "opposite ends of the current political climate"

        They're just abstract concepts that don't exist at all!

        Yeah, right.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Kraz, 15 Jun 2017 @ 4:46am

        Re: Re: "opposite ends of the current political climate"

        > Governments don't want anything. They're abstractions.

        They do, in the abstract. Funny that you failed to understand that.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Thad, 15 Jun 2017 @ 10:45am

          Re: Re: Re: "opposite ends of the current political climate"

          It's hard to understand because it's ambiguous.

          Are we using "want" to mean a natural trend that is inherent in the structure of a thing? Governments "want" more power and control in the same way that information "wants" to be free?

          Or are we using "want" in a literal sense, depicting governments as shadowy cabals of scheming individuals who, presumably, all share the same goals?

          The former is a reasonable, if vague, proposition. The latter is absurd, but a common view among some of the trolls I see around here. If you want me to be able to tell which is which, then you should use clearer words instead of trying to be clever with vague metaphors.

          If I failed to understand, it's because the anon I was replying to failed to communicate.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Gemma, 15 Jun 2017 @ 11:25am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: "opposite ends of the current political climate"

            "If I failed to understand, it's because the anon I was replying to failed to communicate."

            It's always someone else's fault.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Thad, 15 Jun 2017 @ 3:28pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: "opposite ends of the current political climate"

              Soooo are any of you guys gonna try and make any kind of logical or fact-based argument in support of some kind of position, or are we done here?

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    It'sGoingToBeOkay, 14 Jun 2017 @ 11:34am

    Regulate or push push push content folks to filter out the crap

    Call it what ever you want, but an article this morning about Google getting their AI involved in filtering out hate speech and terrorist crap is evolving... is happening.

    May or Macron or whoever whichever entity wants to keep pressure up to force Facebook and Google and other companies that provide these platforms to get their acts together is okay in my book.

    I don't fear censorship en masse, citizens in democratic nations will stand up - in time*. What I fear is not filtering out the garbage that propagates like a virus.

    * sure it might mean a step backward for speech before moving forward again, but then the pressure is on and companies like Google realize this.

    Perhaps I have more faith in democracy than others who think one step backwards is the end of speech. It's not in my book, it's just a road marker not a dead end, a correction until AI's evolve to do the job needed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      stderric (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 11:56am

      Re: Regulate or push push push content folks to filter out the crap

      ...it might mean a step backward for speech before moving forward again, but then the pressure is on...

      This is why the United States can't have nice things.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        stderric (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 12:18pm

        Addendum

        Then-President Obama on torture:

        We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values... It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had... A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.

        We've normalized a war-crime because of pressure.

        What I fear is not filtering out the garbage that propagates like a virus.

        As far as filtering, it's been repeated ad infinitum but I'll say it again: how will you feel when your 'garbage' and the government's 'garbage' don't have much of an intersection in the Venn diagram of speech?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Cowardly Lion, 15 Jun 2017 @ 6:57am

      Re: Regulate or push push push content folks to filter out the crap

      "What I fear is not filtering out the garbage that propagates like a virus."

      I'm not sure if your post constitutes garbage... but I'm betting you'd be a tad miffed if it was filtered out because someone with an ounce of authority thought it was.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 14 Jun 2017 @ 11:46am

    I think they are going to be successful:

    The prime minister and Emmanuel Macron will launch a joint campaign on Tuesday to tackle online radicalisation, a personal priority of the prime minister from her time as home secretary and a comfortable agenda for the pair to agree upon before Brexit negotiations begin next week.

    I have little doubt that enrolling the help of Macron May will be able to lead the mother of all online radicalisation campaigns. She's been pretty good at it so far.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jun 2017 @ 12:14pm

    the plan of desperate 'leaders' in order to try to retain their positions by force, rather than by being voted in trust to look after a nation and it's people!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Norahc (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 12:15pm

    I find May's and Macron's comments to be inflammatory and radicalized. Since these comments are online I demand that tech companies nerd harder to remove all their inflammatory and radical comments from the Internet.

    After all, we must think of the children and protect them from these types of radicals so that they don't become radicalized themselves. No parent should have to raise a child to be a technically inept politician.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    discordian_eris (profile), 14 Jun 2017 @ 12:34pm

    Two Words They Need to Remember

    Clipper chip.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    My_Name_Here, 14 Jun 2017 @ 11:59pm

    Where you see a problem, I see the law catching up to criminals. But Techdirt doesn't like this, because Techdirt hates my opinion, and this is why this anti-intellectual excuse for a website has been on a steady Alexa decline for years. I won't be sorry to see it gone, not that Techdirt would care since Leigh and Masnick love to hide my posts. The good news is that soon enough, all your posts will be gone too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jun 2017 @ 2:52am

    It's a lot cheaper to pretend to care by censoring content than it is to tackle the real causes of radicalization.
    While you can never truly eliminate it (just like you can't truly censor ALL bad content) you can reduce it by quite a lot.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jun 2017 @ 6:18pm

    All of this in the name of censorship, copyright cartel, control/spying, anti-net neutrality et al.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ed (profile), 15 Jun 2017 @ 9:14pm

    If only we could go back in time

    Calls for Brexit were surely inflammatory content and would have been banned.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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