Online Oversight

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My friends and I are pretty active on social media, so we’ve been a little weirded out by some of the stuff that’s been going on lately – you know, the issues with Twitter and harassment, and with Facebook and “fake news,” and all of that stuff. We were talking the other day about Facebook’s plans for combatting revenge porn by having their staff look at user nudes, and everyone had some really strong opinions on it. One of the things that kept coming up was the question of whether the government is ever going to step in and regulate these sites more. Regardless of whether or not that’s a good idea, how likely is that to happen? What do the experts think the future of social media regulation will look like?

Written by John Regan, former Director of Sales, for equity research.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have gained immense power in our society–Facebook, for instance, has 2.07 billion monthly active users. So have search engines like Google, which processes 40,000 search queries every second. So when they attempt to solve problems with their platform, it can easily feel like a societal issue–because, perhaps, it is. Hence the flak that Facebook is taking for their desire to build a database of nude images in order to combat revenge porn and the continued frustration with Google, Facebook, and “fake news.”

Tech companies are already concerned with the moral and societal implications of their work, and it’s starting to show. Among others, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and inventor Elon Musk have urged care and caution with A.I. As technology continues to make different job types obsolete, there was some controlled panic last year when tax prep giant H&R Block began working with IBM Watson’s API. From one financial expert we spoke with, the benefits of such machine learning algorithms will go far to expedite many dull processes during tax season, but it will be some time before we’ll be fully automating the processes altogether. Many of those who file their taxes still prefer to do so by mail, as they want to ensure their documents are all in line, even when the IRS has been allowing people to e-file for some time now.

But self-regulation, some feel, isn’t enough–and there are questions of law in play, too, legal experts say. Facebook plays host to a lot of speech, for instance, and that can cause issues in European countries with strict hate speech laws: witness, for instance, the German law that made Facebook legally responsible for illegal speech of users that Facebook failed to block or take down. And in Australia, one proposed law would force Facebook to give police access to encrypted messages.

Are new laws coming for Facebook and Google in the U.S., too? Some observers think so. With Facebook’s influence on voters under some scrutiny, a bipartisan team of U.S. legislators has introduced a bill to force increased transparency in Facebook’s advertising sales to political actors. Meanwhile, Twitter is facing a similar reality while also combating toxicity in its user base, which some observers think is tempting regulatory measures of its own. Then there’s the business side of things: Google has been fined in Europe for using its search engine to promote its own e-commerce services at the expense of competitors.

All in all, it’s hard to escape the feeling that regulation is increasing for these tech giants. Part of that may be due to how little regulated they have been in the past – extreme regulations seem unlikely in the United States in the near future. But the increased use of existing laws and the addition of new regulations aimed at countering questionable political ad buys both seem fairly likely in the near future.

“The dark side of social media is that, within seconds, anything can be blown out of proportion and taken out of context. And it’s very difficult not to get swept up in it all.” — Nicola Formichetti

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