Can Society Rein in Social Media?

February 27, 2018

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by William Perrin, trustee of Good Things Foundation, Indigo Trust and 360 Giving. He is a former senior civil servant in the UK government. And Professor Lorna Woods, University of Essex.

The benefits that social networks bring for individuals and society are plentiful, yet the harm that many people have suffered is deeply troubling, described in countless reports by individuals, civil society groups and parliamentary inquiries. The turbulent debate about reducing the harm emanating from social media platforms has to date, produced few comprehensive proposals for a regulatory system that might reduce harm.  The issues are complex: social media companies have a duty to shareholder interests, individuals don’t bear the costs of their actions when they use social networks leading to strong externalities, rights to freedom of speech are highly valued, the issues cut across different global approaches to regulation, making jurisdiction sometimes unclear and few governments seem willing to take a strong lead.

This state of affairs is thematically similar to other issues the internet industry has faced over the decades.  In many economic sectors, initial digital disruption has led to economic or social harm, as well as gain, once adoption is widespread.  Eventually governments respond to a lobby from the affected parties, pass some regulations and after quite legitimate protest, the internet industry co-operates in enforcing them, establishing a new status quo.

The issue of harm stemming from social media differs from previous waves of disruption and regulation.  Harm is protested not by well-funded companies but by individuals and a civil society lobby that are dispersed, represent a myriad of different perspectives, are short on resources and lack access to the levers of power.  The interplay between protection from harm and free speech is a substantial complicating factor, as is the role of political parties who seem reluctant to regulate powerful social media campaigning platforms. The economic interests that have been most negatively affected by the rise of social media platforms are arguably those of the traditional media industry. But they have long been steadfast, as you might expect, against regulation that may be construed as placing restrictions upon freedom of expression.  The social media companies, now some of the biggest firms in the world, have learned from previous cycles of disruption and regulation and have built strong lobbying positions.  The net result appears that the lobby to regulate social media is more vocal, but less effective than the economic interests that campaigned during previous disruptive waves, while also facing a better-equipped disruptor.

The authors of this blog post, Professor Lorna Woods and William Perrin each have over 20 years of experience in working on regulatory issues in electronic media and have joined forces with Carnegie UK Trust to sketch out a comprehensive proposal for regulation in the UK and Europe to reduce harm emanating from social media platforms. We are committing our time pro bono.

Over the coming weeks, on this blog we shall sketch out what a model regulatory regime for social media that hinges on ‘harm reduction’ might look like. At the heart of our model, most likely, would be a duty of care on social media platforms towards their users.  We shall explore what regulatory models could help social media companies and their users catalyse a virtuous and importantly, transparent cycle of identifying harms, acting to reduce them, identifying what harms remain or arise then repeating the process.  And doing this while at the same time preserving freedom of expression in the European tradition.

New regulatory models would require new law and new structures and we shall set out some initial proposals for these, in a minimal, pragmatic way within the UK/EU framework.  We shall draw upon successful existing regulatory regimes as diverse as broadcasting, communications, health and safety and employment to produce a final report of a comprehensive, pragmatic regime that balances freedom of expression and the benefits of social networks with protecting people from harm that may emanate from those networks and their users.

We would welcome contributions to William Perrin and Lorna Woods at [email protected]

You can now view the next blog in this series ‘Harm Reduction in Social Media – a Proposal‘.

Any views or opinions represented in this blog are those of the authors, and do not represent those of people, institutions or organisations they are affiliated to.