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Raymond Snoddy 

Social media and a new age of accountability

Social media and a new age of accountability

While it has certainly been a uniquely difficult year, 2020 is closing on a high, writes Raymond Snoddy

It may come as cold comfort, but 2020 is ending with a bang – of sorts - as governments and international organisations begin to tackle the dark side of social media for the first time.

The UK government has finally announced plans to impose a duty of care law on the social media platforms, requiring them to take down “legal but harmful” material such as self-harm videos.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Home Secretary Priti Patel claim the new law, to be published next year, would create a “new age of accountability".

Extreme libertarians will howl against threats to freedom of expression, but society has a right to crack down on everything from material on child sexual abuse and terrorism to sites encouraging teenage suicides. Across Europe, where there were otherwise unexplained teenage suicides, suicide-related content was seldom far away.

Yes such material may be driven to smaller, less scrupulous sites, but it is still a useful thing to drive it to the margins.

The digital properties of news publishers and readers' comments will be exempt from the new rules, as they should, although the operation of such an exception will have to be closely monitored in practice.

The social media giants will also face major challenges implementing proposals that will include barring children from using their sites by more robust methods than simply asking for date of birth.

So far so good, and at least there will soon be a form of accountability under the regulation of Ofcom.

The plan proposes fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of global annual revenue. In many cases there would be an enormous gap between £18 million and something like £5 billion, if the annual revenue tariff were applied to the likes of Facebook or Google. If £18 million were to become a de-facto limit, then it would amount to little more than small change for trillion dollar companies.

If the 10 per cent sanction is both available and implemented, at least for repeat offences, then that indeed would be progress.

Unfortunately the plan has one major flaw as a result of erring on the side of caution, perhaps through wanting to avoid upsetting the tech giants too much.

The Government has ducked perhaps the most important measure of all - making named executives criminally responsible for the failings of their companies.

Nothing would have got their attention quite as effectively as that. Instead of having the power to impose personal fines for repeated failures to take action, the Government has limply decided to merely hold the power in reserve. Better to act now than set up running battle for the future.

By chance the UK announcement came on the same day that the European Commission outlined no less than two comprehensive sets of regulations, aimed at tackling both the behaviour of the large tech companies and their market impact, particularly on existing media.

In this case, those with more than 45 million users could face fines of up to 6 per cent of annual revenue and even the prospect of being broken up.

The Digital Services Act would make platforms reveal information and data about their algorithms, on how decisions are made to remove content and how advertising is targeted.

The Digital Markets Act is designed to deal with anti-competitive behaviour and could result in fines of 10 per cent of revenue. Three fines in five years could lead to break up moves.

A happy and social Christmas to one and all.

As is normal with the European Commission, everything takes time – consultations followed by years of debate before anything actually happens – but at least the caravan is on the move at last.

As for the rest of the year, many in the media will think it is simply a year that should have the duvet pulled over its head. The serious economic effects of Covid-19 and the additional uncertainty caused by the Brexit talks are too obvious to mention.

That would be a mistake. It may have been unlike any other year for a century, but great things were achieved by journalists and broadcasters working remotely, and there are many reasons for pride in survival.

Out of back bedrooms and home offices came news, programmes and information that were worthy of trust - in marked contrast to the conspiracy theories of social media.

In fact levels of trust and attention for the existing media soared across Europe and even the elusive young found that Netflix and YouTube alone were not enough.

Those with a business model based on subscription, if they didn’t actually prosper, did better than their worst fears. It is something solid to build on.

Commercial broadcasters such as Channel 4 took a 40 per cent hit to their revenues but there has since been a strong surge in advertising, which means that Channel 4 advertising revenue may end up down by only 10 per cent for the year.

Small comforts for the most difficult of times but at least it qualifies as something positive.

It may not seem like much but the fact that the BBC has managed to persuade the Government to hold back on decriminalising the licence fee, at least for now, is a small matter for celebration.

Decriminalising would have undermined the finances of the Corporation in ways that would be impossible to predict, or even underestimate.

If such a policy is being seriously considered then, just maybe, the Government has realised that it has to be part of a comprehensive settlement covering the future of public service broadcasting in the UK. It simply cannot be piecemeal sabre-rattling.

If you are a democrat by instinct and a rationalist by conviction then you can celebrate the failure of President Trump to persuade the American legal system that he had won an election he had clearly lost.

It is now up to the US networks and newspapers to stop giving Trump endless free publicity and if they do, denounce his claims of victory as “false” rather than, as too often happens, “unsubstantiated”.

It would surely be a reason to be merry this Christmas if the defeat of Trump should turn out to be a high watermark for irrational populism everywhere. Not least on social media.

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