It appears that the UK government has become a little jealous of the power of its Chinese counterparts in getting internet companies to censor content written by their users, and are pushing for filters to “protect individuals’ privacy”. Apparently the requests for take-downs are no longer good enough, and internet companies should start pro-actively filtering their content in order to avoid the possibility of breaching any court ordered injunctions.
A British parliamentary commission is currently investigating whether internet companies should start implementing privacy screening algorithms to prevent breaches of court orders by users that may not have even been aware of the court order in the first place. When Google responded that they
already remove specific pages deemed unlawful by the courts. We have a number of simple tools anyone can use to report such content, which we then remove from our index.
More than this availability of tools, however, is the problem that the only way for these companies with hundreds of millions of users and billions of new pieces of content each day is by an algorithm which then would likely also censor content that whilst similar to that covered in the court order, would not breach it. However, the committee called these arguments “totally unconvincing”.
What the UK government has still not managed to grasp is that whilst content on the internet may be “written”, it is not so much “published” as “spoken”. The court orders and super-injunctions, such as that over the affair of footballer Ryan Giggs, are against the publication of details about the affair or even the court order about the affair – but they cannot cover people speaking about the topic as that would simply be impractical and impossible to enforce. These injunctions may have worked in the past because there was a clear differentiation between public chatter and content published or broadcast to the public via newspapers, television, or radio. To put Google, Facebook, or Twitter in with broadcasters and newspapers with editorial teams is prima facie ridiculous as they are tools for people to communicate with each other on an equal footing – not the top-down dissemination of information that has defined the world since the invention of the printing press.
Social media (and the Google index of social media content) is much closer to speech than to print, and should be treated as such. Yes it is different because with retweets and Facebook shares information can be broadcast to millions of people almost instantaneously – but this is simply a modern twist on Chinese whispers, where the story being transmitted is digital and so a perfect copy. It is still being transmitted from person to person, just the chain may be a million long, and the process only last a few seconds.
We should be investigating why we have these super-injunctions in the first place, not requiring new companies to enforce these antiquated practices that have little relevance today. For their part, super-injunctions only seem to be being used to footballers and other celebrities having affairs and multinational corporations breaking international laws by dumping toxic waste in foreign countries – is this something we want to protect? Or should we be more concerned by the chilling effects of any forced filtering on social media and digital discussion?