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Tech companies facing the prospect of further regulation on many fronts

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Tech companies facing the prospect of further regulation on many fronts

As Google, Facebook and Twitter have a more and more ubiquitous role in our daily lives, questions about the companies’ power also intensify by the day. Critics are not only calling into question the firms’ control over our online existence, but also worry about how their respective platforms can be exploited by malicious actors.

As a result, an increasing number of commentators are calling for further regulation, hoping to establish safeguards that aim to reduce the possibility that the companies’ influence could be used to harm or divide societal debate.

We’ve collected the most pertinent examples of this development below. The list is not comprehensive but rather aims to illustrate how regulation is increasingly proposed as a remedy for the issues that rise from online platforms’ power. 

United States and the furore over political ads

Since the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, the role online platforms played in the elections has taken the centre stage in the news media’s analysis of the election’s outcome. Despite the companies’ initial reluctance to accept any role in the result, especially regarding false news on the platforms, the evidence that the firms’ services were systematically used to influence the elections is steadily growing.

After the initial focus on fake news on Facebook, the attention has increasingly turned to advertising on the social network, and especially to the so-called “dark posts”, which permit advertisers to present ads to specific demographics without there existing a public trace back to the original advertiser. Combined with Facebook’s sophisticated targeting tools, the concern is that the platform can be turned into a powerful advertising machine for a focused political campaign, without a public record existing for the ads. (Facebook has since discontinued the Dark Posts feature.) 

As new information about Russia-linked political advertising on Facebook continues to be revealed, the company has been called to open up further about the extent of political advertising on the platform. As part of the investigations into potential interference by foreign actors during the US presidential elections, Facebook, together with Google and Twitter, has been requested to testify in an open hearing.

Crucially for the companies involved, one potential outcome of these investigations is new regulation: for instance the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the investigations, compared political ads on social media to the “wild, wild West”, saying that new legislation might be needed to address the issue. Specifically, new regulation could force online platforms to publicly disclose political ad spending – just as TV and print publishes are required to.

Facebook has taken steps to address these concerns, but it remains to be seen if the measures it has introduced will be enough, or whether further regulation will follow. Moreover, the company is not the only tech giant concerned: also Google has found evidence of Russia-linked ads on its services.

EU and the fight against illegal content

While in the US advertising has been the central issue, in the EU the focus has been on tackling illegal content on online platforms, especially relating to hate speech and copyright infringement. The EU Commission is reportedly preparing guidelines that would call internet firms to introduce “trusted flaggers” to identify illegal content on the platforms, leading to a quick or even automated deletion. According to the latest information, the need for new legislation will be decided later, most likely in spring 2018, and would depend on the progress companies make on the issue before then. 

The concerned tech firms have been eager to show that they take the problem seriously: the companies previously agreed to the EU’s proposal to delete hate speech within 24 hours of it being flagged, and for instance Twitter has removed 300K accounts in the first six months of 2017 for promotion of terrorism.

The prospect of further regulation is provoking lively debate: for example in the UK, the chairman of the media regulator Ofcom said that in her view the companies are publishers and could be regulated as such. On the other hand the Culture Secretary has warned against heavy regulation against online platforms, saying it could have adverse effects on freedom of speech. 

Alongside these developments in the EU there is also a growing movement to change how tech companies are taxed so that the firms would pay more taxes in the countries where they generate revenues. If the Amazon/Luxembourg case is a sign of what is to come, the era of “sweetheart tax deals” is seemingly over, and the EU Commission is expected to push for a VAT tax reform that will significantly reform how tech giants pay tax in Europe.

Germany’s crackdown on hate speech

Perhaps the strongest impulse to further regulate tech companies has been in Germany, where a law was passed this summer requiring social media platforms to “delete obviously illegal hate speech and other postings within 24 hours after receiving a notification or complaint, and to block other offensive content within seven days”. Companies failing to remove the content timely could face fines up to €50 million.

The critics of the legislation argue it will push social media companies to err on the side of removing also harmless content, and that the situation could lead to a privatised online censorship. The UN Special Rapporteur expressed concern about freedom of expression, and the EU digital commissioner also criticised Germany’s crackdown.

For context, Germany has been one of the main battlegrounds for false information: the country saw a massive increase in fake news earlier this year, and little before the country’s federal elections in September there was a concerted, Russia-linked campaign to influence the result. 

Author

Teemu Henriksson's picture

Teemu Henriksson

Date

2017-10-18 08:52

Author information

The news publishing industry is experiencing transformation at an ever-growing pace, with new policy issues arising as the landscape changes.

We will be examining policy discussions that will define the news publishing environment of the future, the key topics being internet governance, privacy and copyright. Click here to learn more about our work.

WAN-IFRA Media Policy team and experts.


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