Good Samaritan, Bad Samaritan

This week, the European Commission made me read the Bible. Turns out perhaps they should have a look themselves. This is what I found:

Around the time of Jesus Christ, Jews and Samaritans generally did not like each other. But the Good Samaritan selflessly helped an injured Jew he found, beaten and robbed by the side of the road. Where others had kept walking, the Good Samaritan stopped and gave the stranger his aid.

This parable is often used as metaphor. In many countries, Good Samaritan-laws protect those who help strangers from prosecution (for example from being sued if the victim dies in spite of the help given).

A new spin on the Good Samaritan has turned up in European Commission digital policy, suggesting that social media companies should not be held liable for illegal content posted on their websites or platforms if they actively hunt it down. This is supposed to encourage proactivity on their part.

Really? More exemptions from liability is what the internet needs? Of all the problems that became apparent in the 2017 techlash – sexism, hate speech, election manipulation, extremist propaganda, disruption, abuse of dominant position, surveillance economy and then some – the common denominator was lack of responsibility on the part of the intermediaries, safe harbour gone too far. The lesson learnt should be not more exemptions from liability, but more active responsibility. Under the biblical wrapping, isn’t this only safe harbour in a new guise?

I am glad that Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip thinks online platforms must be more proactive in removing illegal content. In fact, I couldn’t agree more! But: I don’t think Good Samaritan means what VP Ansip thinks it means in this case. Internet platform companies are not innocent by-standers who happen to come across infringing content uploaded by users as they merrily stroll along the road to Jericho, whistling to themselves (probably day-dreaming about stock options). They actively provide the tools and service that makes the infringement (or highway robbery, if you prefer) possible. For profit. It’s more as if the original Good Samaritan was the road keeper, charging the robbers for use of not only the road but providing the stick to beat the victim with. I know, it sounds harsh but this is what you get with the biblical metaphors.

Moreover, the Good Samaritan-laws that give immunity for example from mistakes made when giving help, protect from lawsuits from the victim or its family or similar. In the internet platform version, this would mean immunity from the user who may disagree with a platform removing infringing content. Not immunity from the owner of said content!

If VP Ansip really wants to encourage online platforms to be more proactive, here’s a radical idea: Hold them responsible for illegal content on their systems. And I’m pretty sure that would encourage them way more than immunity. And I’m pretty sure the Good Samaritan would agree