Deputy Leader of the Labour Party calls for social media bosses to be locked up

05 Apr 2019

Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party speaking to BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme (05.04.19) called for “unaccountable” social media giants to be broken up and for their executives to suffer criminal sanction.

Speaking to Today’s Nick Robinson, Watson described Facebook as too big to be regulated and called for other social media giants to be broken up under competition law.  He condemned the live streaming of the New Zealand murders on the 15th March.  In the meantime, yesterday Mark Zuckerberg was reported by CNN as saying Facebook would not delay livestreams after last month’s massacre. 

There is power under the UK Competition Act 1998 to accept commitments from an organisation that has been found to have abused its market power.  These commitments may include the breaking up (divestment) of all or part of that organisation.  The Competition and Markets Authority has power to give Directions to infringing organisations to cease the infringing behaviour, but the competition regime in the United States is far more explicit in terms of the power by US regulators to order the break-up of market dominant organisations. 

What is being considered now in the UK are powers more explicitly along the lines of the US law.  Mr Watkins goes further and calls for criminal sanction against executives of firms that permit the uploading of racist, hate and offensive material. 

I would make this point: social media platforms have billions of users - Facebook alone has 2.3 billion users. So we must ask two questions of ourselves: 

  • Firstly, do we trust government and its regulators to regulate cyberspace?
  • Secondly (to be asked only if the answer to the first is in the affirmative) is – OK, well how?

Hard cases make bad law; a cliché, yes, but like all clichés it has a grain of truth.

We have seen how social media platforms have permitted live streaming of shootings.  We have seen how material on taking one’s own life has contributed to people doing just that.  We have seen material on everything from eating disorders to ISIS to material from the far right.

I accept all that, and I accept that social media can hurt.  But I urge caution.  There is much of merit on social media platforms.  I argue that it is difficult for platforms to self regulate because of the ease with which material can be uploaded; I do not see how regulation will ease those difficulties.  How do you regulate material from 2.3 billion potential uploaders?  

Be reasonable

The regulatory regime must be limited to the platform taking reasonable steps to prevent material being uploaded, and reasonable efforts to remove it once the platform becomes or is made aware of the material concerned.  But isn’t that, in reality, what is happening now?

Further, if we decide to break up the larger platforms, will we not be multiplying the problem rather than solving it?

I don’t see what locking up executives will achieve either.  To impose criminal liability in such cases where the criminal is surely the person who uploads the material is just not fair.  The chances of conviction will be limited.

So let us not rush to the law book before we have really thought about this; whatever the ‘popular press’ may say, lawmakers must take some time to think.

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