Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News

On Tuesday 11th September, Lucy Powell MP introduced the Online Forums Bill to Parliament. It was a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’, a mechanism by which opposition and backbench members of parliament can introduce legislation.  The text of Ms Powell’s speech may be found in Hansard and there is a video on Parliament.tv.
The speech makes some challenging points. How is it that Facebook groups can grow to tens of thousands of people in secret, with no oversight or scrutiny? One such group, which discussed autism, recommended that parents give their kids ‘bleach enemas’ to cure the condition.
Powell also points out that members of these groups often feel too intimidated to speak out against the most vocal and radical members of the group. This shifts the dynamics of such groups to ever more extreme positions, and is a very particular free speech issue in itself.
The bill proposes that online forum operators like Facebook be forced to take greater responsibility for what is published on their platforms. Just after the parliamentary debate concluded, I was invited onto Sky News to discuss the proposals. The segment can be viewed below or on YouTube.

To my mind, there are both principled and pragmatic free speech objections to this policy.
First, the matter of principle. Lucy Powell takes it as axiomatic that ‘something must be done’ and that anyone publishing to tens of thousands of people should be regulated. I don’t deny that there should be some laws regarding what can be said and written (in paper and online), such as libel laws, contempt of court, prohibition on incitement to violence, &cetera. But we already have such laws and they can be applied whenever transgressions come to light. That is not the same as the establishment of a regulatory regime Which would proscribe the discussion of certain issues from the outset and would most certainly mean higher frequency censorship. I am by no means convinced this is desirable in a free society.
During the segment I was also able to highlight the practical concerns. Facebook cannot possibly deploy human moderators to all its groups. So this legislation would presumably require Artificial Intelligence and algorithms. These are known to be unreliable. It would result in ‘false positives’ where benign or radical-but-not-illegal content was censored; and it would probably also miss certain forum discussions that were genuinely harmful.

It would also encourage activists to report for moderation any discussions that they found offensive or objectionable, with the expectation that the Facebook systems would take them down, at least temporarily. Activists from all over the political spectrum do this all the time, and lawful content is taken down as a result.
Another pragmatic concern is Who Gets Regulated? When introducing a new system for press regulation in 2013, the coalition government introduced into the law the concept of a ‘relevant publisher’. The idea was that the big, powerful newspapers would be ‘relevant’ and included in the new system, but bloggers, student newspapers and specialist publications would not. However, the actual legislation is ambiguous and it is unclear who should join the regulator. This Online Forums legislation could run into similar problems of scope.
Finally, I was pleased to mention the global dimension on Sky News. The Online Forums Bill might have unintended international consequences. If the U.K. government compels the social media companies to regulate groups based here, then authoritarian governments will be quick to insist that Facebook regulate groups that are publishing in their countries, compounding a censorship problem that already exists. This would be a catastrophe for free speech and freedom of association.

One Reply to “Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News”

  1. “Facebook cannot possibly deploy human moderators to all its groups. ”
    Arguably it would be worse if they did. All the same arguments re authoritarian regimes hold true, but it would very likely make the activist problem worse.

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