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How difficult is it to make a law on moderation of online content

The British government recently presented to parliament a law it has been working on for five years: it is the Online Safety Bill, which addresses the very delicate and controversial issue of content moderation on social networks, made notoriously difficult by the need to balance freedom. expression and the safety of users, especially those considered most vulnerable. Although British Secretary of State for Digital Nadine Dorries says the law would make the UK “a world leader in setting standards for a better and safer Internet for all”, however, the text of the law displeases many and even threatens to isolate the country from the global network.

Moderating user-generated online content is notoriously complex. Those who manage digital platforms find themselves in the almost impossible situation of identifying and distinguishing, among the enormous quantities of posts, videos, photos and comments that are published every day on their site, the contents that break not only their own rules but also, always more often, the specific laws of the countries in which they are active.

The contents in question must be removed both quickly, so as to cause as little damage as possible, and carefully, to avoid mistakenly deleting the legitimate ones. The investments necessary to make this delicate mechanism work, in a way that considers the linguistic, social and cultural specificities of millions of users, are often very high, and to cut them tech companies rely heavily on artificial intelligences which, however, often do not know how to understand. the context of the content they examine.

To all this, in recent years, there has been increasing political pressure, because different factions correspond to different sensitivities and beliefs about what content should be tolerated or not. The issue gained particular attention when most of the mainstream social platforms had decided to suspend the accounts managed by the former US president Donald Trump after the attack on the US Congress on January 6, 2021. The idea that a former US president could being censored on social networks had opened a heated debate on what should be the limits of intervention of the platforms, which also carrying out an evident function of publishers are therefore affected by new issues and dilemmas concerning freedom of expression on their sites.

In this context there are different legislative efforts, which, depending on the context in which they were introduced, have raised different concerns. For example, both the European Digital Service Act – which could come into effect from 2023 – and the new social networking rules presented in India last year have the stated purpose of compelling platforms to do more to stem disinformation. The Indian government of Narendra Modi, however, has already been accused of intimidating the platforms that do not want to crack down on opposition posts, the European Union does not.

In the case of the UK's Online Safety Bill, which promises to make the UK the “safest place in the world to surf the Internet”, criticism abounds. The text of the bill was presented to the British Parliament on March 17, and aims to exert unprecedented pressure on technology platforms to force them to moderate not only illegal content, but also what the government considers “legal but harmful” , such as solicitation of suicide or pornography.

– Read also: Making the Internet a safer place for children is not easy

To do so, the bill gives new powers to the country's telecommunications regulator, Ofcom: if approved, the regulator will be able to request information and data from technology companies active in the United Kingdom to assess how they are protecting users by entering company premises, interviewing their employees and subjecting them to external evaluations.

If false or incomplete information is disclosed, Ofcom could impose fines of up to 10% of the company's annual turnover or even seek jail time for senior executives, a provision that the conservative press has dubbed “Nick Clegg Law” , named after the former British Deputy Prime Minister who was named Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook in 2018, who would potentially be affected by the measure. Clegg himself criticized the bill saying that “it risks fossilizing how products work and preventing the constant interaction and experimentation that drives technological progress”.

According to the British government, “The Online Safety Bill marks a milestone in the fight for a new digital age that is safer for users and takes into account the tech giants. It will protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people's exposure to illegal content while protecting freedom of speech. The text, however, does not seem to make almost anyone happy.

The objection has been raised by many that the law is simply too broad and that it wants to regulate the entirety of online interactions, from large social platforms to private messaging services. The bill was originally meant to put a stop to online radicalization following the terrorist attacks of 2017, but after every scandal – from online racist attacks to Afro-descendant players of the England national football team after the European final to the recent suicide of a ' teenager who, on school computers, had visited sites that incited self-harm – the law was expanded to include new digital phenomena, albeit disconnected from each other, from hate speech to trolling, from circulating nude photos without the consent of the interested parties to fraudulent advertising.

While the government continues to claim that the new law would actively protect freedom of expression online, the text is very inaccurate as to what content falls into the nebulous category of “legal but harmful”. For this alone, several experts point out that the Online Safety Bill risks pushing platforms to delete more posts than necessary in order not to risk legal repercussions.

– Read also: Substack's approach to content moderation

Concerning privacy, concerns have been raised relating to the fact that the law reserves the right to force platforms to adopt technologies that profile users and identify their behavior, but also to impose the use of “verification technologies 'age' on adult sites to make it more difficult for minors to access, potentially allowing a form of tracking of all people who visit pornographic sites.

“Everyone, from lawyers to activists to creators, is saying that in terms of freedom of expression and privacy, this law is a catastrophe,” explains Carolina Are, a researcher expert in content moderation who teaches at City University of London. «All the definitions are very general and applicable in different ways according to the political ideas and personal prejudices of the people involved. As already happened with the US laws FOSTA and SESTA, it is very likely that the platforms, in order not to be fined or prosecuted, will end up censoring many more things, including those that are in the public interest “.

The bill has yet to go through the legislative process and be approved in both houses of Parliament. If it were to pass, it would risk creating in some ways a distinct network for British users from that experienced by most of the world, isolating them as is already happening in China, Russia or India.

Despite the five years of work, the criticisms and protests against the bill show how complex and risky it can be for governments to intervene on such a huge and multifaceted issue as Internet content regulation.

Civil liberties groups say it provides state legitimacy for the censorship of big technology on a scale we've never seen before. Critics of big tech argue that it can't hold back the power of the irresponsible Silicon Valley tycoons. Startups despair over reduced profits. Activists say it fails to address the issue of technology business models. For children's charities, it doesn't do enough. For academics studying children's behavior online, it goes too far, ”sums up journalist Rowland Manthorpe. “Its scope is also a matter of debate. For its supporters, the bill is innovative and unique in the world. For others it is a small step, not always in the right direction “.