Insights Michael Baker

Power to the People?

People – not regulators – are best placed to clean up the web

The internet’s great promise was to free information and control from institutions, and put it into the hands of people. It was originally driven by what economist Shane Greenstein termed “innovation from the edges” rather than led by a “single, hierarchical and deliberate organisation”.

But as governments fret about keeping people safe online, instincts to create centralised structures to tackle harms lurking in the seedy underbelly of the web have grown stronger. This week, the UK government said the country’s communications watchdog Ofcom would “regulate” the internet. Social media firms will have a “duty of care” and Ofcom will set rules and monitor how companies’ systems protect people from “harmful and illegal” content.

The absurdity of the plan was exposed by its architects who cautioned not to expect a “perfectly sanitised environment” as “the whole thing is about process”. The civil servant who set up Ofcom predicted the agency would expand by around 300 bureaucrats, charged with monitoring companies’ compliance with the new rules rather than the nasties online.

That tech giants pleaded for this model of regulation should have served as a warning. While bosses will want to kill off any proposal to make them personally liable for any breach in the new laws, the thrust of the UK’s approach favours incumbents.

Firstly, social media platforms have invested billions of dollars to monitor and review content. But even they have found it impossible to assess every minute of the 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute or 140 billion Instagram posts over New Year’s Eve. Ofcom’s Home Guard, barely a battalion strong, is unlikely to have the expertise, capacity or ideas to clean up the web.

Most importantly, the Government has dug a regulatory moat around social media businesses. New entrants aiming to challenge their dominance with radical ideas or products will need an army of compliance officers on day one. A prohibitive barrier to entry.

It’s no wonder these firms want to defend their turf and promote centralised control. While advertisers have taken steps to prevent their dollars reaching websites that promote harmful content, in reality digital advertising is a duopoly. Facebook has over 75 per cent of the market share in global social media and with Google, takes 84 per cent of all online ad spend outside China. The internet’s health is an issue for the competition authorities as much as communications regulators.

Moves to increase competition could herald change. If users could easily take their data elsewhere – and with it their eyeballs and companies’ ad spend – social media platforms might change the way they do business. More room for upstart rivals emerging from the edges of the internet, rather than centralised control is what is needed. Other countries looking at tackling online harms might be well advised to give the UK’s ideas a reboot.