Out of the early days of the internet came the voracious mega-beasts that would come to dominate the digital landscape – Google, YouTube , Twitter, Facebook.
They wanted to unite the world with smiling emojis, status updates and Lolcats. Their platforms grew to a global scale beyond imagination. And then, as traditional media lost its audience to these jolly pied pipers, they took on the mantle of the Media.
They insisted on calling themselves “technology” companies to sidestep the kind of scrutiny that governed mainstream TV and newspapers and that seemed to work for a while. Echo chambers gave Followers and Friends constant reassurance that all was happy-clappy and awesome.
But time passed, the novelty faded and the world, it seemed, felt let down by its pocketpals. They grew tired defending the perception of foot-dragging over matters of child pornography, hate speech and the oxygen of publicity for terrorists.
Calls for reform
As Khalid Masood was mowing down people on Westminster Bridge on March 22, the terror group that claimed him as their soldier – Isis – was most likely reaping $7.60 for every 1,000 views of its YouTube videos. That is the unpalatable reality of the business model that promotes you brand's album and relives your sister’s wedding.
Before the Westminster attacks, pressure was growing for reform. It will inevitably weigh heavier in the wake of the atrocity. Politicians loved the vanity potential of their personal platforms which delayed the assault. But now there’s momentum. Now there’s the blame game – irrational, emotional and misdirected as it so often is.
At the Home Affairs select committee on March 14, representatives of YouTube (a Google company), Facebook and Twitter , were admonished like naughty schoolboys for their laissez faire attitude to the freaks, troublemakers, racists and terrorists who, without much bother, took advantage of their open door policy.
Imagine the ignominy of being scolded by Naz Shah MP for allowing anti-semitic diatribes on Facebook sites. (Naz Shah was suspended from the Labour Party for, er, posting anti-Israeli remarks on Facebook).
Imagine being told by long-time shame disseminator David Winnick MP they should be ashamed – ashamed! – for the way they make their money – as if the slick, suited, well-spoken executives themselves were the creators of child porn and bomb tips.
Notice and take down
Four words were their fig leaf. “Notice and take down.” The policy that means almost anyone can post anything and the tech companies will only respond if someone complains.
Even then the complaint has to pass their own guidelines, judged by non-UK-based assessors. So “Jews admit organising white genocide” doesn’t break the guidelines because it doesn’t technically incite racial violence. Or the use of hate speech isn’t automatically banned because the Tweet may be there to condemn the hate speech, spreading the quote for purposes of context.
“ Notice and take down ” has been the tech companies’ best friend. While newspapers found themselves facing stronger regulation, the tech giants offered a free audience of billions to those who wanted to proclaim, for example, that “Schoolgirls are hot in uniforms”.
Even when hate groups colonised vast sectors of the web, it still escaped scrutiny. Most people cultivated their own benign circles of friends and fellow travellers, oblivious to the poison creeping in from the margins.
“Notice and take down” worked well up until March this year. Then the walls started crumbling. Blue chip, big name advertisers – Marks and Spencer, Audi, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson – found their brands were being associated with terror and hate groups. Worse, they were being named and shamed to a worldwide audience. They began to withdraw.
And whatever wave was stirring before 2.40pm on March 22, it will become a tsunami now.
At the outset, the California hipsters had – naively (to some) or cynically (to others) – invited everyone to the party and hoped they would play nicely. When they didn’t, they were appalled and offended, like maiden aunts requiring smelling salts.
They made some belated and limited efforts to stop the nastiness but the efforts seemed to be aimed at appeasing politicians rather than tackling the problem. They weren’t instinctive censors.
“These hate pedlars have made money from advertising,” Chuka Umunna told the chastised high fliers at the select committee. “You have acted as a money making machine for these groups. You are not working nearly hard enough on this.”
And that appears to be the truth of the matter. The technology companies have instituted guidelines and flaggers and vetters, they have closed down accounts and set up feedback forms – but their efforts do not appear to be anywhere near commensurate with the scale of the problem or the billions of pounds of profits they rake in that could fund a full-on assault on the problem.
It doesn’t help that they arrange their tax affairs to pay a disproportionately small amount to states who fund the likes of PC Keith Palmer. He gave his life defending the kind of democratic and egalitarian values which the tech companies espouse. In other words, they’re happy to reap the rewards of liberty but not fund the sacrifice it requires.
The tipping point
And so we approach the tipping point. People love their little Facebook gang, their domestic slice of YouTube, their cosy phalanx of Twitter followers. But the corporations behind them, once the counter-culture – are rapidly replacing bankers as the heartless, greedy capitalists du jour.
These giants have to decide – and quickly – whether they can afford to remain technology companies paying lip service to moral imperatives. Or whether they must become media companies, bolstering their editorial services even at the expense of their free speech credentials.
“We won’t get to a point where nothing on the internet offends everybody,” says Twitter’s Nick Pickles. “You cannot solve social issues with technology. And we’re never going to get pre-moderation. We’re never going to get to that point.”
So where is the point? And how do they get there, in practical terms? Is this next-gen artificial intelligence the answer, weeding out the unwanted with nifty algorithms? Or is more technology just a technology companies’ inevitable response to a problem outside its cultural understanding?
Whatever the answer, the problem is now mainstream and urgent. When advertisers start to pull out; when a trickle becomes a stampede; when nation states, like Germany, begin to issue eight figure fines; when reputational damage encourages startups to establish virtuous versions of the giants; and when crusades characterise you as the enemy rather than the ally, then “notice and take down” begins to look more like a cryptic crossword clue than a meaningful strategic response to an existential crisis.
“You’re poisoning people’s lives,” declared Home Affairs select committee chair Yvette Cooper.
We’ve come a long way from “ Don’t be evil ”.