I found it fascinating that in the wake of the Sri Lankan attacks, their government had the ability to simply shut Facebook and Twitter down, on security grounds. So at least in those countries with a developed and centralized i.t. infrastructure, full regulation is possible.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will lead a summit in May that seeks to eliminate violent extremist content in the wake of the March 15 attacks in Christchurch.
She has noted in her media release:
The March 15 attacks saw social media used in an unprecedented way as a tool to promote an act of terrorism and hate. We are asking for a show of leadership to ensure social media cannot be used again the way it was in the March 15 terrorist attack.
It is critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism, and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism. The meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and tech companies.”
It is possible that the zeitgeist for global social media regulation is peaking at the right time, and the big tech giants will accede.
But so far, no.
Speaking a few days after the Christchurch massacre, Mark Zuckerberg refused to stop live streaming, even under such circumstance as filming a massacre.
He has said that he is open to the industry being content-regulated. Kind of.
His opinion in the New York Times said that “regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.” The tech industry has long said that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is vital to its ability to operate open platforms. The provision exempts companies from being liable for user-generated content.
In a comparable global moment of media expansion in the 1920s, the U.S. National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters was formed to pre-empt strong state regulation. Their code for self-regulating broadcast representation in the 1920s included:
All sounds quite arcane, twee and moralistic now. But what those television, film and radio companies were seeking to forestall through self-regulation was the growth of state-by-state film and broadcasting censorship boards; a near-identical historical moment to what we are in now. And they largely they achieved this. If Mark Zuckerberg had any sense, he would attempt something similar, before the world does it to him.
It’s the U.S. media laws that have framed our own, and it remains the case that it’s U.S. media and social media companies that dominate us in New Zealand. So it’s relevant that we turn to U.S. regulation as useful comparators.
If social media companies are obviously capable of airbrushing every single sign of nudity on Youtube, and stop any copyright infringement in seconds, then yes they really can stop terrorist content if they feel like it. They only started to clean out the vile Alex Jones posts on the Sandy Hook massacre after the court case against him started to go the way of the victims who were suing him.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already determined that the federal government may prohibit providing non-violent material support for terrorist organizations including legal services and advice without violating the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
So there’s a really good case there for Congress to pass a law prohibiting coordination or support between digital companies and domestic terror organizations.
In distinction to television and radio, what we have had with U.S.-based social media companies is a near-complete lack of self-regulation, in favour of becoming personal data-harvesting conglomerates with none of the privacy restrictions that so hobble the states’ own surveillance powers, and none of the public policy guidance that a safe society needs. They make Foucault’s panopticon look like a mere tree hut.
The only thing that would get these massive media companies (for that is what they are) under control is to bring them under the regulation of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This may well take a change of U.S. President and a Democratic majority in the Senate to achieve, but I don’t think that’s too far away.
The FCC was established by Franklin Roosevelt with the assumption that the airwaves belonged to the people, much in the same way that federal forest land or seabed exploration blocks belonged to the people.
Broadcasters applied for a license to use a section of the public property, which was a specific frequency. In return broadcasters had an obligation to serve the interest of the community. The FCC had the right to restrict content such as obscene material, and require balance and fairness in political broadcasting, and to insist that a part of each broadcasting week be devoted for public use.
The U.S. FCC has been a good global benchmark for regulating broadcasting in a reasonably light handed manner.
Putting the U.S. social media companies under the FCC would become the precursor to global content policing of social media.
You may well say that is impossible, but then, world trade regulation was considered impossible until the 1980s. Global nuclear bomb test regulation was considered impossible particularly in the Cold War. There are multiple active and successful global regulatory regimes.
Even today on New Zealand television’s state channels, there are still vestiges of similar controls in specifying kinds of programme that should occur at specific times, specific targeted ‘public good’ broadcasts that may not be justified by ratings, and specific ways political broadcasts are treated.
As soon as we compare making social media companies subject to the same kind of state controls that television and radio have had to abide by for decades, the reckless irresponsibility of the big social media companies in extremist broadcasting becomes apparent.
Prime Minister Ardern has not yet set the terms of reference for the Royal Commission in to the preparedness, focus, and resources of security and border agencies prior to the Christchurch massacre. Very curious. Perhaps she is using the French summit as a rehearsal to get her thinking straight.
Prime Minister Ardern won’t get global regulation of social media overnight, but she and Macron are going for a really, really big global regulatory prize that may take decades to achieve.
The results of the Royal Commission must not result in yet more powers to the SIS and GCSB, or even necessarily more generous and more horizontal profiling.
It must result in the state being able, where it needs to, to shut the whole of social media down for a time to re-establish the security of New Zealand. We won’t be safe until this is assured.
If we are lucky it will result in the ability to treat social media like any other broadcast, and to censor and sanction the broadcaster.