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Lords Tell UK Gov to Stop Pandemic of Internet Misinformation

Monday, June 29th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 2,294
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A new cross-party report from the House of Lords Digital Technologies Committee has called on the UK Gov to ensure that their future Online Harms Bill can tackle the rising “pandemic of misinformation” on the internet, which they warn is a “threat” to democracy. More censorship and blocking by broadband ISPs is proposed.

Striking the right balance between freedom of expression and outright censorship is never an easy task. Sadly some of the major content providers (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.) have struggled to tackle recent challenges via the existing self-regulation approach, which has enabled election interference by foreign states (e.g. fake news propaganda) and terrorist or criminal material online to surge.

NOTE: The Bill will also include the endlessly delayed internet porn block via age verification (here), which many view as a privacy nightmare.

Not to mention the plague of internet trolling (i.e. people who post generally abusive or harmful content), “fake news” and, most recently, the dangerous spread of some truly absurd COVID-19 related 5G mobile conspiracy theories (i.e. encouraging criminal attacks against infrastructure and key telecoms workers). The Government agrees that too much “harmful” content is thus being allowed to slip through a fairly weak net.

Last year’s Online Harms White Paper (here) proposed to tackle some of these tricky areas, although it seemed to shy away from conspiracy theories. Broadly speaking the associated Bill, which has yet to be published, aims to introduce new laws for websites that would be enforced by Ofcom through a new Code of Practice (CoP).

The Lords Select Committee Report

The new report – ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust‘ – warns that the Government must take action “without delay” (i.e. by immediately publishing the new Online Harms Bill) to ensure “tech giants are held responsible for the harm done to individuals, wider society and our democratic processes” through misinformation widely spread on their platforms.

Summary of Key Recommendations

* The ASA, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom and the UK Statistics Authority should co-operate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, along with appropriate sanctions, that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum.

* The Online Harms Bill should make clear that misinformation and disinformation are within its scope.

* Ofcom should produce a code of practice on misinformation. This code should include a requirement that if a piece or pattern of content is identified as misinformation by an accredited fact checker then it should be flagged as misinformation on all platforms.

* The Competition and Markets Authority should conduct a full market investigation into online platforms’ control over digital advertising.

* The Online Harms work should make clear that platforms’ duty of care extends to actions which undermine democracy.

* For harmful but legal content, Ofcom’s codes of practice should focus on the principle that platforms should be liable for the content they rank, recommend or target to users. Platforms should also be held responsible for content that they recommend once it has reached a specific level of virality or is produced by users with large audiences.

* The Government should empower Ofcom to sanction platforms that fail to comply with their duty of care in the Online Harms Bill. These sanctions should include fines of up to four per cent of global turnover and powers to enforce ISP blocking of serially non-compliant platforms.

* The Government should establish an independent ombudsman for content moderation decisions to whom the public can appeal should they feel they have been let down by a platform’s decisions.

* Parliament should set up a joint committee of both Houses to oversee Ofcom’s Online Harms work and that of the proposed ombudsman. This committee should be constituted so that there can be no Government majority amongst its Members.

* Ofcom should be given the power to compel companies to facilitate research on topics that are in the public interest.

* Ofcom should issue a code of practice on algorithmic recommending. This should require platforms to conduct audits on all substantial changes to their algorithmic recommending facilities for their effects on users with characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010.

* Ofcom should issue a code of practice on content moderation. This should require companies to clearly state what they do not allow on their platforms and give useful examples of how this applies in practice. The code of practice on content moderation should also include the requirement that all technology platforms publish an anonymised database of archetypes of content moderation decisions on impersonation, misinformation, hate speech and abuse.

NOTE: The full report also covers various other areas, such as with respect to electoral law, but that falls outside of ISPreview’s focus.

The Committee points out that many content providers are in effect in business relationships with platforms that host their content and the platforms have a duty of care to ensure the content is not harmful, either to individuals or our shared democratic principles. This should be backed up by the power for Ofcom to fine digital companies up to 4% of their global turnover or “force ISP blocking of serial offenders.”

On top of that it recommends that political advertising be brought into line with other advertising in the requirement for truth and accuracy, which could be a fun thing to implement given how flaky political parties can be with their commitments and context. Not to mention the inherent difficulty of judging a promise that has not yet been delivered and the time taken to rule on it (i.e. the ads would be finished by the time a decision is made).

Lord Puttnam, Chair of the Committee, said:

“We are living through a time in which trust is collapsing. People no longer have faith that they can rely on the information they receive or believe what they are told. That is absolutely corrosive for democracy. Part of the reason for the decline in trust is the unchecked power of digital platforms.

These international behemoths exercise great power without any matching accountability, often denying responsibility for the harm some of the content they host can cause, while continuing to profit from it.

We’ve seen clear evidence of this in recent months through a dangerous rise of misinformation about Covid-19. We have become aware of the ways in which misinformation can damage an individual’s health along with a growing number of instances where it is our collective democratic health that’s under threat. That must stop – it is time for the Government to get a grip of this issue.

They should start by taking steps to immediately bring forward a Draft Online Harms Bill. We heard that on the current schedule the legislation may not be in place until 2024. That is clearly unacceptable.

We have set out a programme for change that, taken as a whole, can allow our democratic institutions to wrestle power back from unaccountable corporations and begin the slow process of restoring trust. Technology is not a force of nature and can be harnessed for the public good. The time to do so is now.”

As ever there are lots of potential caveats with attempting to effectively police the reality of human thought. One such issue is the age old problem of how you define something like “hate speech” (outside of more obvious areas like racism etc.), as well as who decides what is and is not “fake news” online in the first place and then separates that from related content, which may include criticism of the same subject, as well as satire, the right to cause offence, political free speech and so forth.

At this point big commercial content and social media providers, like those mentioned earlier, are highly likely to try and reduce their liability for bad content by introducing automated filtering systems, which are notorious for being overzealous and unable to understand context (e.g. people joking about blowing up a city vs actual terrorist discussions). The end result is usually significant over-blocking of lawful content (mass censorship).

Meanwhile there’s still a big question mark over the accuracy and effectiveness of online Age Verification systems. Not to mention that the huge scale of recent hacks and personal data thefts has resulted in people becoming less likely to trust online services with their personal data, which doesn’t bode well for anybody thinking of asking their users for more personal data or even financial details.

On top of that it remains unclear whether the Online Harms Bill will focus on big companies or target every single website. Lest we forget that the economic models for internet content are radically different from the offline world. Many blogs, for example, can be written by just one person and yet be read by millions, despite running off a shoestring budget (this is how the internet works and remains one of its core appeals). Forcing such sites to implement unaffordable measures, which will also need to work across lots of different software, seems unworkable.

As for forcing broadband ISPs and mobile operators to block content, while this is possible, it’s ultimately a bit of a dumb measure  – the equivalent of leaving the door open while hanging a “do not enter” sigh on the outside. The reason for this is because ISPs cannot control content that exists remotely on other online servers, they can only impose a skin deep restriction that even a young child could circumvent.

Blocking also works best against an entire domain or IP address (or both), but it’s less effective when deployed against specific pages on a website. The proposal above appears to be suggesting that mass blocking of an entire online platform, such as Twitter or Facebook, could be implemented and that seems fundamentally unconscionable for a democracy.

The lords may thus risk supporting a draconian censorship regime and harming free speech, even though that might not be their direct intention. Clear definitions of what does and does not constitute “harmful content” are also required. Meanwhile there’s the question of how people can trust such regulation from politicians, which in recent times haven’t exactly earned a good reputation for being the standard bearers of truthfulness.

Finally, the lords have called on the Government to introduce their Online Harms legislation within a year of this report’s publication.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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9 Responses
  1. Avatar Mike says:

    Democracy allows government to grow like a cancer, it was only a matter of time before they came for the internet.

    1. Avatar vpn2therescue says:

      so just VPN and ignore all that silly government censorship.

    2. Avatar Michael Hilarious says:

      There should be a new rule in place: anyone caught using a VPN will be fined. When one uses a VPN, it surely is for nefarious reasons, because we normally have nothing to hide since we are all on Ggl and FB. Internet should be transparent to anyone. If the whole Internet is encrypted, then there will be more dramatic events like those from last week. Encryption is seriously a bad thing for our society. If dramatic events like those from the past week happen, it’s because of encryption. Telegram and Signal are a cancer to society. Feeling being observed is a good thing, because we are more prone not doing bad things such as, of course, propagating fake news. There’s no need for HTTPS, VPN, SSH or things like this. Telnet or nc, for exemple, is enough. If the whole world in encrypted, then our governments agencies will pollute our environment even more with their machines to decrypt the whole thing. So, for the environment at the very leat, we should not use encryption. Encryption should only be used by government employees and agents. It’s obvious they must protect their identity while observing us for better security in our society.

    3. Avatar 125us says:

      Michael – I’m not sure you’d really want to do online banking, or shopping, or anything on a website that requires you to log in, if you didn’t have encrpytion freely available.

      I don’t buy your Internet Panopticon as a model for society. Being allowed to have a private life is a human right. Do you support all your post being opened and scanned? Don’t want any secrets in those envelopes do we, like the PIN for your bankcard?

    4. Avatar Timeless says:

      @Michael Hilarious

      your more than welcome to live in a glass house, but l for one refuse to. because lm sure if your vision came true we would never get rid of parties like the Tories given the only reason they want our information is that there is much profit in it.

    5. Avatar Mike says:

      The problem is VPN’s require an exit point in a country with uncensored internet, these countries are apart of an ever shrinking list.

  2. Avatar joe says:

    Digital Technologies Committee doesn’t understand the internet. But thats not really new..

  3. Avatar MrYan says:

    “The Online Harms work should make clear that platforms’ duty of care extends to actions which undermine democracy.”

    So, ban things you don’t like because it’s anti-democratic. Can’t see how that would end badly. Once ensconced in power, just make any opposition a hate crime or fake news.

    God forbid, you trust people to weight the evidence for themselves and make a decision on their own. No, you need the technocrats to do that for the proles.

  4. Avatar gtanyware says:

    The basic issue with all this is that the problem and the proposed solution(s) occupy different spaces. The problem is the way the Internet empowers bad actors to cause immense damage with no risk to themselves; the solutions are all grounded in conventional, pre-Internet technologies and attitudes.

    The only way to deal with the problem is to go for it in its own space. A number of untested options are available, but be in no doubt that there is no simple solution; anything effective will be hard to achieve.

    In principle, though, nobody should be able to post material without being required to defend their views. So to start with, perhaps it could be made impossible to post anything, anywhere public under the cloak of anonymity. Every post could be made attributable to a specific, physical person. All posts would have to be attributable in some way, such as by tying email addresses to physical entities such as a cellphone number.

    Secondly, if your views are challenged you are obliged to defend them or have them taken down. This would cause major inconvenience to those who currently spray out tweets without ever having to defend them.

    The likelihood of anything like this happening is vanishing small. It requires too much effort and upsets too many vested interests. But I’ll continue to dream of a better world.

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