The Irish Times view on regulating social media: Gathering momentum

Tech giants can no longer pretend they have no responsibility for content they allow to be uploaded

A 3D printed Facebook logo is seen iReports of election manipulation by the likes of Cambridge Analytica and Russia are clearly troubling not only politicians but voters, in Ireland no less than the EU. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

A 3D printed Facebook logo is seen iReports of election manipulation by the likes of Cambridge Analytica and Russia are clearly troubling not only politicians but voters, in Ireland no less than the EU. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

Public concern at the proliferation of unacceptable content on social media has brought a significant shift in the debate about the online world. Talk of regulation is mainstream, as is the idea that tech giants can no longer pretend they have no responsibility for content they allow to be uploaded.

When it comes to incitement to political violence, or child abuse material, they have begun to collaborate with states to monitor content that is clearly illegal and, rapidly, to take it down.

But how to tackle the greyer area of fake news, invasions of privacy, and defamation and bullying online is less clear. Reports of election manipulation by the likes of Cambridge Analytica and Russia are clearly troubling not only politicians but voters, in Ireland no less than the EU at large.

A new Eurobarometer poll finds strikingly high levels of concern. Two-thirds of Irish respondents (64 per cent) say they fear election manipulation by cyberattacks and fear abuse of data held on line, while three out of five (60 per cent) believe coverage could be adversely affected by “foreign actors and criminal gangs”.

Similarly, large percentages favour responding to such pressures with rules to ensure that paid political advertising is clearly differentiated from non-advertising content, and that platforms should be required to reveal how much they are being paid to put up such material. Respondents overwhelmingly support a right of reply online (86 per cent).

How such protections can be introduced and enforced is now a critical debate between politicians, civil society groups and the online industry. The latter favours voluntary self-regulation, warning that regulation by the state may impinge on free speech, not to mention impose onerous financial demands on its freewheeling business model.

There is also a third way, of course: an independent voluntary regulatory system, akin to Ireland’s press ombudsman and press council, in which consumers and industry would share in policing the industry’s excesses.

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