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World governments attempt to regulate social media: the full low-down

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Earlier today, we reported on a new parliamentary report published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in the UK calling for a redefinition of social media.

The recommendation is that a new category of tech company be introduced to properly define and regulate social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, as neither a ‘publisher’ nor a ‘platform’.

It appears that similar efforts are afoot across the pond, as a leaked white paper proposes Congressional regulation of social media and big technology companies in the US.

In a policy paper obtained by Axios, Sen. Mark Warner’s office presented 20 different options to address problems posed by social media platforms.

“Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Apple, among others – have been some of the most successful and innovative in the world,” the paper says. As their collective influence has grown, however, these tech giants now also deserve increased scrutiny.”

It goes on to explain why government oversight is required, stating, “the extent to which many of these technologies have been exploited – and their providers caught repeatedly flat-footed – has been unmistakable. More than illuminating the capacity of these technologies to be exploited by bad actors, the revelations of the last year have revealed the dark underbelly of an entire ecosystem.”

The speed with which these products have grown and come to dominate nearly every aspect of our social, political and economic lives has in many ways obscured the shortcomings of their creators in anticipating the harmful effects of their use. Government has failed to adapt and has been incapable or unwilling to adequately address the impacts of these trends on privacy, competition, and public discourse.

The policy paper divides the different proposals along three lines:

1. Combating disinformation

First, understanding the capacity for communications technologies to promote disinformation that undermines trust in our institutions, democracy, free press, and markets.

2. Protecting user privacy

A second dimension relates to consumer protection in the digital age.

3. Promoting competition in the tech space

Lastly, the rise of a few dominant platforms poses key problems for long-term competition and innovation across multiple markets, including digital advertising markets (which support much of the Internet economy), future markets driven by machine-learning and artificial intelligence, and communications technology markets.

“Fake news” or misinformation spread through social media has been dominating headlines lately, and the Warner paper suggests one possible proposal is that platforms be required to label automated bot accounts, and also do more to identify who are actually behind anonymous or pseudonymous accounts.

Forcing the platform companies to determine and/or authenticate the origin of accounts or posts would go far in limiting the influence of bad actors,” the paper notes. Facebook appears to have trialed an approach similar to this in May 2018:

It goes into more depth on why immediate action is required, so that things don’t go from bad to worse:

A new set of tools is being developed that are poised to exacerbate these problems. Aided in large part by advances in machine learning, tools like DeepFake allow a user to superimpose existing images and videos onto unrelated images or videos.

In addition, we are seeing an increasing amount of evidence that bad actors are beginning to shift disinformation campaigns to encrypted messaging applications rather than using the relatively more open social media platforms. Closed applications like WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber, and others, present new challenges for identifying, rapidly responding to, and fact-checking misinformation and disinformation targeted to specific users.”

In the same way that bots, trolls, click-farms, fake pages and groups, ads, and algorithm-gaming can be used to propagate political disinformation, these same tools can – and have – been used to assist financial frauds such as stock-pumping schemes, click fraud in digital advertising markets, schemes to sell counterfeit prescription drugs, and efforts to convince large numbers of users to download malicious apps on their phones.

From a practical standpoint, although the proposals in the paper cover a wide gamut, much of it may not be feasible to implement in the current political climate. Nevertheless, it’s a first step and foreshadows more initiatives to come.

There have been various sessions in the US Congress looking at the failures of digital platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, including their failure to limit the spread of false news during the 2016 US election.

Yet, until now, there has been very little done in terms of actual actions by the governments to deal with the new scenario… and this finally appears to be changing, on both sides of the pond.

Read the whole paper