British government wants internet giants to pay a “troll tax” for the suffering their sites cause
The culture secretary, Karen Bradley, has this morning outlined a voluntary code of practice which aims to make internet giants undo some of the “undeniable suffering” that the internet can cause.
As part of the plan, web giants will be asked to pay for action against the likes of cyberbullying, trolling, abuse and underage access to porn. Another aspect involves social media companies producing a transparency report covering the volume of content reported against the proportion taken down, how complaints are handled, and details of how moderation is handled.
The internet has been an “amazing force for good,” according to Bradley, but she added that it has “caused undeniable suffering” and can be an “especially harmful place for children and vulnerable people.”
Bradley believes that this “collaborative approach” can be effective without legislation, explaining that she sees a “willingness” from internet giants. “Many of them say: ‘When we founded these businesses we were in our 20s, we didn’t have children… now we’re older and we have teenagers ourselves we want to solve this,” she said.
The words “voluntary code of practice” may immediately smack of policy by PR rather than something genuinely transformational, but the move does have precedent: the gambling industry, for example, contributes money towards the treatment of addicts. Although, of course, in that case the psychological dangers of gambling are historically well documented – unambiguous direct evidence of social media scarring is harder to come by, mainly still in the anecdotal category thanks to the medium’s age.
The politics behind the scenes
You may remember that reigning in the power of internet giants such as Facebook and Google was part of the Conservative party manifesto at the last election. Had the Tories achieved the three-figure majority they had hoped for in June, action would likely be less of the “collaborative approach” flavour and more of the hard laws being passed down. Bluntly, the loss of majority in the house of commons has scuppered something which would have always been a slightly naive strategy.
Instead of the internet giants, it’s the Tory party’s own ambitions that have been reigned in. And while Bradley doesn’t rule out legislation in future, she explained that for now, legislation would take “far too long.” Well maybe, but that’s also possibly a euphemism for “could result in embarrassing government defeats”.
As Bradley told The Today Programme this morning: “We are concluding on how best we do it. Taking legislation through the House of Commons and Lords is not the easiest way to do it.”
Reading between the lines: stricter laws governing social media may be fairly popular and command majority support in the Commons and the Lords. But it’s a sign of just how far the government has fallen since that day in June that it doesn’t plan to put that theory to the test.