Do Social Network Providers Require (Further?) Regulation – A Commentary

This is a review and commentary of the Sir Henry Brooke Student Essay Prize winning essay for 2019. The title of the essay topic was “Do Social Network Providers Require (Further?) Regulation

Sir Henry Brooke was a Court of Appeal judge in England. He became a tireless campaigner during retirement on issues including access to justice. His post-judicial renown owed much to his enthusiastic adoption of digital technology although he spear-headed early initiatives for technology in courts and led and was first Chair of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) – a website that provides access to English and Irish case and statute law. Upon his retirement many came to know of him through his blog and tweets. He drafted significant sections of the Bach Commission’s final report on access to justice, and also acted as patron to a number of justice organisations including the Public Law Project, Harrow Law Centre and Prisoners Abroad.

The SCL (Society for Computers and Law) Sir Henry Brooke Student Essay Prize honours his legacy.  For 2019 the designated essay question this year was 2000-2,500 words on the prompt “Do social network providers require (further?) regulation?” the winner was Robert Lewis from the University of Law. His essay considers some of the regulatory responses to social media. His starting point is the events of 15 March 2019 in Christchurch.

The first point that he makes is that

“(h)orrors such as Christchurch should be treated cautiously: they often lead to thoughtless or reflexive responses on the part of the public and politicians alike.”

One of his concerns is the possibility of regulation by outrage, given the apparent lack of accountability of social networking platforms.

He then goes on to examine some examples of legislative and legal responses following 15 March and demonstrates the problem with reflexive responses. He starts with the classification of the live stream footage and the manifesto posted by the alleged shooter. He referred to a warning by the Department of Internal Affairs that those in possession of the material should delete it.

He then examines some of the deeper ramifications of the decision. Classification instantly rendered any New Zealander with the video still in his computer’s memory cache, or in any of his social media streams, knowingly or not, potentially guilty of a criminal offence under s.131 of Films Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993. He comments

“Viewing extracts of  the footage shown on such websites was now illegal in New Zealand, as was the failure to have adequately wiped your hard drive having viewed the footage prior to its classification. A significant proportion of the country’s population was, in effect, presented with a choice: collective self-censorship or criminality.”

Whilst he concedes that the decision may have been an example of civic responsibility, in his opinion it did not make good law. Mr. Lewis points out that the legislation was enacted in 1993 just as the Internet was going commercial. His view is that the law targets film producers, publishers and commercial distributors, pointing out that

“these corporate entities have largely been supplanted by the social network providers who enjoy broad exemptions from the law, which has instead been inverted to criminalise “end users”, namely the public which the law once served to protect.”

He also made observations about the maximum penalties which are minimal against the revenue generated by social media platforms.

He then turned his attention to the case of the arrest of a 22 year old man charged with sharing the objectionable video online. He commented that

“that faced with mass public illegality, and a global corporation with minimal liability, New Zealand authorities may have sought to make an example of a single individual. Again, this cannot be good law.”

Mr. Lewis uses this as a springboard for a discussion about the “safe harbor” provisions of the Communications Decency Act (US) and EU Directive 2000/31/EC, which created the “safe harbour” published or distributed.

Mr Lewis gives a telling example of some of the difficulties encountered by the actions of social media platforms in releasing state secrets and the use of that released information as evidence in unrelated cases. He observes

“The regulatory void occupied by social network providers neatly mirrors another black hole in Britain’s legal system: that of anti-terrorism and state security. The social network providers can be understood as part of the state security apparatus, enjoying similar privileges, and shrouded in the same secrecy. The scale of their complicity in data interception and collection is unknown, as is the scale and level of the online surveillance this apparatus currently performs. The courts have declared its methods unlawful on more than one occasion and may well do so again.”

A theme that becomes clear from his subsequent discussion is that the current situation with apparently unregulated social media networks is evidence of a collision between the applicability of the law designed for a pre-digital environment and the challenges to the expectations of the applicability of the law in the digital paradigm. For example, he observes that

“The newspapers bear legal responsibility for their content. British television broadcasters are even under a duty of impartiality and accuracy. In contrast, social network providers are under no such obligations. The recent US Presidential election illustrates how invidious this is.”

He also takes a tilt at those who describe the Internet as “the Wild West”.

“This is an unfortunate phrase. The “wild west” was lawless: the lands of the American west, prior to their legal annexation by the United States, were without legal systems, and any pre-annexation approximation of one was illegal in and of itself. In contrast, the social network providers reside in highly developed, and highly regulated, economies where they are exempted from certain legal responsibilities. These providers have achieved enormous concentrations of capital and political influence for precisely this reason.”

He concludes with the observation that unlawful behaviour arises from a failure to apply the law as it exists and ends with a challenge:

“ In England, this application – of a millennium-old common law tradition to a modern internet phenomenon such as the social networks – is the true task of the technology lawyer. The alternative is the status quo, a situation where the online publishing industry has convinced lawmakers “that its capacity to distribute harmful material is so vast that it cannot be held responsible for the consequences of its own business model.””

The problem that I have with this essay is that it suggests a number of difficulties but, apart from suggesting that the solution lies in the hands of technology lawyers, no coherent solution is suggested. It cites examples of outdated laws, of the difficulty of retroactive solutions and the mixed blessings and problems accompanying social media platforms. The question really is whether or not the benefits outweigh the disadvantages that these new communications platforms provide. There are a number of factors which should be considered.

First, we must recognize that in essence social media platforms enhance and enable communication and the free exchange of ideas – albeit that they may be banal, maudlin or trivial – which is a value of the democratic tradition.

Secondly, we must recognize and should not resent the fact that social media platforms are able to monetise the mere presence of users of the service. This seems to be done in a number or what may appear to be arcane ways, but they reflect the basic concept of what Robert A. Heinlein called TANSTAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Users should not expect service provided by others to be absolutely free.

Thirdly, we must put aside doctrinaire criticisms of social media platforms as overwhelming big businesses that have global reach. Doing business on the Internet per se involves being in a business with global reach. The Internet extends beyond our traditional Westphalian concepts of borders, sovereignty and jurisdiction.

Fourthly, we must recognize that the Digital Paradigm by its very nature has within it various aspects – I have referred to them elsewhere as properties – that challenge and contradict many of our earlier pre-digital expectations of information and services. In this respect many of our rules which have a basis in underlying qualities of earlier paradigms and the values attaching to them are not fit for purpose. But does this mean that we adapt those rules to the new paradigm and import the values (possibly no longer relevant) underpinning them or should we start all over with a blank slate?

Fifthly, we must recognize that two of the realities in digital communications have been permissionless innovation – a concept that allows a developer to bolt an application on to the backbone – and associated with that innovation, continuous disruptive change.

These are two of the properties I have mentioned above. What we must understand is that if we start to interfere with say permissionless innovation and tie the Internet up with red tape, we may be if not destroying but seriously inhibiting the further development of this communications medium. This solution would, of course, be attractive to totalitarian regimes that do not share democratic values such as freedom of expression

Sixthly, we have to accept that disruptive change in communications methods, behaviours and values is a reality. Although it may be comfortable to yearn for a nostalgic but non-existent pre digital Golden Age, by the time such yearning becomes expressed it is already too late. If we drive focused upon the rear view mirror we are not going to recognize the changes on the road ahead. Thus, the reality of modern communications is that ideas to which we may not have been exposed by monolithic mainstream media are now being made available. Extreme views, which may in another paradigm, have been expressed within a small coterie, are now accessible to all who wish to read or see them. This may be an uncomfortable outcome for many but it does not mean that these views have only just begun to be expressed. They have been around for some time. It is just that the property of exponential dissemination means that these views are now available. And because of the nature of the Internet, many of these views may not in any event be available to all or even searchable, located, as many of them are, away from the gaze of search engines on the Dark Web.

Seventhly, it is only once we understand not only the superficial content layer but the deeper implications of the digital paradigm – McLuhan expressed it as “the medium is the message” can we begin to develop any regulatory strategies that we need to develop.

Eighthly, in developing regulatory strategies we must ask ourselves whether they are NECESSARY. What evil are the policies meant to address. As I have suggested above, the fact that a few social media and digital platforms are multi-national organisations with revenue streams that are greater than the GDP of a small country is not a sufficient basis for regulation per se – unless the regulating authority wishes to maintain its particular power base. But then, who is to say that Westphalian sovereignty has not had its day. Furthermore, it is my clear view that any regulatory activity must be the minimum that is required to address the particular evil. And care must be taken to avoid the “unintended consequences” to which Mr Lewis has referred and some of which I have mentioned above.

Finally, we are faced with an almost insoluble problem when it comes to regulation in the Digital Paradigm. It is this. The legislative and regulatory process is slow although the changes to New Zealand’s firearms legislation post 15 March could be said to have been done with unusual haste. The effect has been that the actions of one person have resulted in relieving a large percentage of the population of their lawfully acquired property. Normally the pace of legislative or regulatory change normally is slow, deliberative and time consuming.

On the other hand, change in the digital paradigm is extremely fast. For example, when I started my PhD thesis in 2004 I contemplated doing something about digital technologies. As it happens I didn’t and looked at the printing press instead. But by the time my PhD was conferred, social media happened. And now legislators are looking at social media as if it was new but by Internet standards it is a mature player. The next big thing is already happening and by the time we have finally worked out what we are going to do about social media, artificial intelligence will be demanding attention. And by the time legislators get their heads around THAT technology in all its multiple permutations, some thing else – perhaps quantum computing – will be with us.

I am not saying therefore that regulating social media should be put in the “too hard” basket but that what regulation there is going to be must be focused, targeted, necessary, limited to a particular evil and done with a full understanding of the implications of the proposed regulatory structures.

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