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Why we'd be right to fine big tech companies

By Mal Fletcher - posted Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theresa May's plans to fine big technology companies if they fail to expunge extremist material online should be given careful consideration, not denigrated and dismissed out of hand.

A leading Queens Counsel and member of the government's own counter-terrorism watchdog clearly believes any attempt to fine social media companies is counter-productive and even dangerous. "We do not live in China," says Max Hill QC, "where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides."

He wonders whether government dealings with the technology giants should be more conciliatory, bringing them onside in the fight against extremism. This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but there are several major flaws in this thinking.


Firstly, the argument regarding China is an attempt to cast Mrs. May's proposal as an exercise in censorship. This is, of course, one of those hot-button words which invariably sets many a pulse racing, as people imagine governments attempting to block their basic civic liberties.

In fact, censorship exists at almost every level of societal life and it is vital for preserving individual and social liberties.

All laws protecting our rights arguably represent a form of censorship. They proscribe individual behaviour for the common good, in ways that are agreed to or at least tolerated by the wider society.

This is not, of course, the same type of censorship that applies when the Chinese government takes down the internet for political purposes. However, it is still censorship and implying that all government regulation of media companies would represent a negative form of censorship is disingenuous.

The second flaw in arguments against government regulation, is that these arguments draw a false distinction between social media and "old" media and print industries.

Society recognises that owners of newspapers and media outlets wield great influence. They have the means to help shape or at least "nudge" public opinion. Society insists that great opportunity must be accompanied by high levels of accountability. The outcome of the phone-hacking scandal highlighted this fact.


If a newspaper or media outlet oversteps the bounds of propriety, or threatens the public good, we are quick to apply a penalty. In some cases, it will be a fine, in others criminal proceedings might be in order.

Online social media platforms are more than blank slates through which individuals can express themselves. They are the new broadcasters and publishers of our time. When they make huge amounts of money trading on the data we publish, they cannot claim to be innocent bystanders in the process of information dissemination. They clearly have a stake in the process.

They must therefore also accept the social responsibility attendant upon them as the post-modern equivalent of TV, radio or newspaper proprietors.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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