#TechFix: How to Save the Internet

What if the problems around digital have been fixed before? If 2017 was the year of the Techlash, 2018 could be the year of the Techfix. The Techlash, when Silicon Valley started to ask if it had created a monster. Sexism was discussed openly. Facebook admitted that foreign powers had influenced the US presidential election. The technorati started thinking about the surveillance economy and if digital growth could really be endless. It was a welcome wake-up call from the previous delusions of grandeur. Mmm, gotta love the smell of fresh coffee!

The scene is set, then, for a conversation around what to do about all of it. What should the Techfix look like? Many things, probably, but here is one: the EU Commission adopted a “Communication on Illegal Online Content” in September last year. The idea is to ask the intermediaries to take voluntary measures to limit bad things like terrorism, child sexual abuse and illegal hate speech; the darker sides of internet freedom. The other day, a more developed document – a “recommendation” – leaked. It also talks about consumer protection, but for some reason copyright infringement is deleted in the leaked version.

One of the challenges of internet regulation is jurisdiction. A rule that makes sense in one place may be bad in a different place. Also, it is often difficult for the legislators to hold internet actors accountable if they operate from a different jurisdiction. The answer has been that it is too difficult to fix, it would break the internet (=take a way the good with the bad) and all the bad stuff online exists offline anyway. Except, of course, offline we try to limit the bad stuff and we don’t say that any measure to tackle problems will jeopardize the benefits so therefore we should abstain from it.

This is when the Commission’s recommendation starts to make sense: jurisdiction is limited, problems are real. Who can do something? Who controls the internet? The intermediaries do. The platform companies. The “tech giants”. Except they’d rather not, it’s more convenient to be “just a technology company” with no responsibility for what users do. Celebrate the principle of safe harbour (except that principle demands action when made aware of a problem!).

Don’t take it from me, but from Mekonista:

What if the problems around digital have been fixed before? What about press ethics? What stops the press from spreading fake news? Sometimes the law, but in most places it is a system of press ethics operated by the press and journalists: transparency about editorial decisions, accountable editors, clear procedure for complaints and appeals, independent scrutiny. Or what about advertising, what stops the advertisers from lying? The law, to some extent, but more importantly the code from the International Chamber of Commerce. Again: transparency, independent scrutiny, accountability. There are many others, look at banks, content ratings, food safety, automotive safety – a combination of law and self-regulation. Self-regulation is not a company checking itself. It’s an independent body with a transparent rule-set and clear procedure. The benefits of self-regulation is that it is much more flexible to changes in technology, markets, consumer behaviour, attitudes etc compared to legislation. It is also stricter and tries many more cases than the courts can. These last two are important, as they are the reason the legislator should only intervene as an exception. Self-regulation systems are funded by the industry they regulate and they are put in place when there is a credible threat of legislation. It is not “privatising the task of deciding what is acceptable or not”. It is striking a balance between the interests of business and the rest of the world.

Take the hint Silicon Valley. The EU Commission is telling you to get your act together, face up and take responsibility for the fallout from your business. They don’t say it, but if you don’t there is going to be legislation that you don’t want. So, look at the press, the advertisers or some of the others mentioned above. Whatever you put in place must be real and convincing. You have to mean it. That’s the TechFix. You’re welcome, Silicon Valley. The first fix is always free.

Get your TechFix on. Save the internet.

Full transparency: this writer has first-hand experience from self-regulation as a board member of the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman and many years working with the games age rating system PEGI.