COLUMBIA — The era of Facebook profiting madly off the trashiest, most libelous gossip it can show to its users could be coming to an end thanks to a government — not ours here in America — finally showing some backbone against the tech giants rapidly destroying our culture.
The United Kingdom published a policy paper April 8 that would require internet companies to take “reasonable and proportionate” action against illegal and potentially harmful content posted on their sites. The British government would set up a regulatory body with the authority to levy fines for failures to control things like terrorist propaganda, cyberbullying and disinformation, The Wall Street Journal reported.
In other words, hold those companies — some of the richest in the history of the world — to the same standard that all other publishers, including this newspaper, have been held to since time immemorial.
If I publish something, even a paid advertisement, I can be held liable for any libel contained in it. But in one of the worst decisions in U.S. history, the deceptively named Communications Decency Act of 1996 opened the door for all kinds of indecent behavior by giving online companies an exemption from this. It considered them neutral carriers and waived responsibility of what was published on their platforms. The idea was that websites were like the owner of a telephone line, who wouldn’t be held responsible for a slanderous insult made on a conference call, for example.
That law was passed before Facebook or Google had been founded and prior to anyone being able to comprehend the vast influence they would possess. So the time is far past for them to take responsibility for what they do, which is one of the most basic premises in life and business.
Absent that, we’ve seen the harm wreaked on our society — mass shootings, such as the recent one in New Zealand, broadcast live on social media platforms, children harassed to the point of suicide, reputations tarnished beyond repair based on malicious chatter. And the more comments it gets, the more people Facebook shows it to — because that’s that many more ads it can serve up. It’s a disgraceful tactic that threatens to morally bankrupt our once-great nation.
The United Kingdom’s plan is a step toward breaking down that unmerited layer of protection for tech companies.
“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over,” Jeremy Wright, the U.K.’s digital secretary, was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal story. He also remarked that he hoped the move would be “a model that other countries, including the U.S., will want to look at very carefully.”
I’ll amen that.
Social media companies have focused on automated ways to catch bad content, but they often fail, as they did in the New Zealand mosque massacres. A robot is never going to be able to catch everything that a trained human editor would. Tech companies, though, know that would be incredibly expensive. The only way to make them do it is for the government to levy penalties greater than those employment costs.
Britain is making plans to do that. America should do the same, and the easiest way would be to remove the libel exemption. You better believe Facebook would find a way to restrain the vitriol published on its platform if it was held financially responsible for not doing so.
• Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Contact him at email@example.com.