Last week marked the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of the public internet, in the form of the world wide web.
This is, of course, the mechanism through which most of us engage the internet. Marking the event, the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, spoke about the dangers of an internet that’s now driven more by corporate interests than by individual users.
He called for a re-think of our values and ethics when it comes to the web and the internet in general.
The timeliness of his statements was highlighted by the slow reaction of certain sites to the attack on worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Fifty people died in the attack and the alleged perpetrator live-streamed his shooting spree on social media. Reportedly, both the video and the killer’s so-called “manifesto” - an attempt to justify his crimes - remained online for a while after the attacks.
Facebook claims to have scrubbed 1.5 million related videos worldwide within 24 hours, with 1.2 million being blocked at upload. The company says it is working “around the clock” to remove similar content using a combination of human operators and automated technology.
Yet experts say that the 17-minute video was easily retrievable several hours after the attack.
Facebook figures reveal that at least 300,000 videos were not blocked before being uploaded. How many times were these clips viewed or shared? Nobody knows.
This has raised again the horny issue of censorship in social media. The debate also takes in mainstream, traditional media and press because much of the conversation surrounding what is news-worthy is shaped by the audience’s exposure to social media.
In the US, 46 per cent of people get their news online at least three times per week and more than 50 percent have learned about breaking news from a social media site. In 2012, online news revenue in the US surpassed that of print news for the first time. In 2016, more than half of all American adults - 66 percent - took news from social media sites. Eighteen percent did so often, according to Pew Research. (That figure is undoubtedly higher among people aged under 30).
The new media clearly exercise great power. Yet some people continue to denounce all forms of censorship, on the basis of protecting civil liberties, particularly freedom of expression.
Few responsible people will argue that, generally speaking, regulation of public behaviour is a bad thing. Most of us agree that without regulation life in a free society would become untenable. Yet all regulation is a form of censorship. It’s only because our rights are proscribed in law - or censored - that we have a free society at all.
Nobody realistically expects that mainstream media or press companies will always act in the interests of the common good, so governments are charged with making laws to ensure that they do. The same approach must be applied to new media or social media sites.
Governments need to do much more than issue denunciatory press statements when social media platform are seen to be working, even indirectly, against the public good. Governments need to provide strong incentives for them to reform, by way of punitive laws that have real teeth.
Over the past decade, large new media companies have proven woefully ineffective in carrying out substantial internal reforms. Recently, two of the groups that had provided fact-checking services to Facebook, Snopes and Associated Press, pulled out of the relationship because they said they were simply being used as crisis PR for Facebook.
The company, they said, didn’t care about the problem of false reporting, it only cared about its image. A recent report from a British parliamentary select committee reflected a similar sentiment in relation to data breaches. It said that despite government warnings, Facebook continues to place profit above data security.
The same can perhaps be said about Facebook and other social media sites when it comes to violent or anti-social content.
Large social media companies love to claim that they’re still the maverick pioneers in the wild-west internet. They are, however, multi-national corporations.
More than that, they are becoming the news curators, the editors, publishers and producers of our time. This contributes to their enormous profitability, with news operating as click bait, drawing eyes to advertising content. News also boosts their data-collection services, which provide a major income stream.
If they want to continue to profit from being preferred news sources, social media companies should accept the concomitant social responsibility.
We cannot expect social media platforms to predict the behaviour of their users. We can and should, however, expect them to react quickly, firmly and decisively when their sites are used to promote violence, murder or incitement.
We must demand that they use a larger proportion of their enormous profits to provide a more proactive approach to blocking violent content at the point of delivery. We must require that they take down such content immediately it appears.
If they don’t, we might despair for the future of the internet and of Tim Berners-Lee’s creation.
Hear Mal Fletcher's BBC interview on this issue.