The Corner

Fake News and Censorship (British Edition)

To return yet again to the topic of how abusing the idea of ‘fake news’ could represent an ideal opportunity for censors on the make, here’s the BBC discussing a report by the British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee (that such a committee even exists is, incidentally, yet more depressing evidence of the reach of the modern state). The Committee’s report was prompted by Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, but, however bad that mess may have been, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the cure may be worse than the disease.

BBC:

The committee highlights the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans”.

And who decides which views are ‘hyper-partisan’ and which are merely the expression of sweet reason?

As to trying to influence people’s voting plans by appealing to their “fears and prejudices”, that’s something that politicians of all stripes–from pillars of the establishment to the wildest of the wild men–have been doing for centuries. Something tells me that some ‘appeals’ will be more equal than others.

Back to the BBC:

Companies such as Facebook and YouTube have repeatedly said they are just a “platform”, rather than a “publisher”. They have argued that they are not responsible for the content people post on their services.

The committee’s report is expected to say social media companies “cannot hide behind” this claim.

A “new category of tech company” which is something in between a platform or publisher should be created, the committee will suggest. This should establish “clear legal liability for the tech companies to act against harmful and illegal content on their platforms”.

It looks a lot as if these MPs, like authoritarians from Moscow to Malaysia, have been inspired by the strikingly illiberal precedent set by Angela Merkel’s social media law. In particular, and as I mentioned in a recent NRODT piece, part of the idea behind sticking social media companies with legal liability is to scare them into going even further in muzzling free speech than the strict letter of the law requires.

For example:

German chancellor Angela Merkel, infuriated by criticism of her immigration policy (and, rather less so, by Russian disinformation), endorsed a new law, the catchily named Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, under which social-media companies must take down posts that constitute “manifestly unlawful . . . hate speech” and “fake news” from their sites within 24 hours of a complaint. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to 50 million euros. Fake news is criminally fake if it amounts, say, to an insult, malicious gossip, or defamation — including defamation of a religion or ideology — sufficiently serious to contravene German law.

Combine the potential size of the fine with offenses that lend themselves to flexible interpretation (much like that “manifestly”) and it’s easy to see that Berlin intended to scare social-media companies into an approach to censorship that goes far further than the letter of the law, a ploy that appears to be working. The government wanted to shut down talk that was not necessarily illegal but — after Merkel flung open her country’s doors in the summer of 2015 — uncomfortably unorthodox. The mainstream media had enthusiastically echoed the chancellor’s Willkommenskultur narrative of kindly Germans cheerfully greeting the migrants, but establishment unanimity was not enough for the instinctively authoritarian Merkel. Her less “welcoming” compatriots had found an audience on social media. That would not do.

Meanwhile, among the weapons that the British parliamentary committee would like to see deployed against fake news is, the BBC reports, “an independent body” to “audit the social networks”.

Ah yes, “independent”.

And:

Tighter regulation of social media sites would mean more work for organisations such as the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The committee will suggest a tax on tech companies. Some of the money should fund the extra responsibilities of the regulators.

Ah yes, a tax.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Alastair Campbell, a key adviser to Tony Blair both in government and opposition, tweeted this:

Climate change denial should be a crime.

We can, I think, be confident that any significant deviation from climate change orthodoxy will be regarded as fake news.

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