28 March 2018

Stop trying to tame the digital Wild West


Scarcely a day goes by without a newspaper columnist calling for the government to tame the Internet’s so-called Wild West culture. They appear to have finally got their wish last week when Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said “the days of an unregulated Wild West are over.” This isn’t unexpected, the Government was regrettably elected on a pledge to regulate the internet. The problem is that while this so-called Wild West has delivered massive benefits for consumers, each proposed regulatory crackdown offers few tangible solutions and poses serious threats to competition, innovation, and free expression.

One proposal that is increasingly popular with the legacy media companies that compete with Google and Facebook for ad revenue is to treat social media platforms as publishers of content. Germany recently passed a “Facebook law” requiring them swiftly to take down hate speech or risk massive fines. Lord Bew, who chairs the Government’s ethics watchdog, proposed a similar law targeting abuse directed at politicians. The Prime Minister herself believes that tech giants should be able to take down extremist content within hours (or even before it’s posted) using bots.

These proposals would have a chilling effect on free speech. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube would be forced to censor user-generated content. Rather than run the risk of steep fines, social media sites will likely end up censoring legal, but controversial, speech. Take the absurd case of Scottish Comedian and YouTuber Count Dankula, who’s been convicted of committing a hate crime for filming himself teaching his girlfriend’s pug to do a Nazi salute. In this climate, it’s hard to imagine any moderator, human or AI, reliably identifying illegal content while leaving legal content alone. More likely, firms will choose to make whole topics no-go areas.

Don’t believe me? It’s already happened. Last week, the US Senate passed SESTA/FOSTA – a bill aimed at tackling online sex trafficking, which made digital facilitation of prostitution a federal crime. Hours later Reddit closed subreddits used by sex workers to discuss, but not to advertise, prostitution, and Craigslist shut down its Personals section. The latter is particularly concerning, as a recent working paper found that female homicides fell in cities when Craigslist opened erotic services sections. Disappointingly, there are calls for the UK to implement similar laws despite the fact that the US Department of Justice admitted the law would make prosecuting sex trafficking cases harder and in the face of opposition from sex worker and anti-trafficking groups.

Laws shifting the burden from users to platforms also risk stifling competition and discouraging innovation. It is unlikely Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, would have survived as startups if they were under the constant threat of legal action. Laws designed to reign in social media giants may in fact entrench their position. Facebook and Google can afford to hire more moderators and develop new algorithms to seek out offending content, the startup with the potential to create the next Facebook or Google does not have that luxury.

Tech firms are branded as wide-eyed extreme libertarians for refusing to install backdoors in their encrypted messaging services. The Home Secretary believes that end-to-end encryption is “completely unacceptable”. Yet it is not clear that it is even technologically feasible to create an encryption backdoor open only to the good guys. And even if you were to safely undermine WhatsApp and iMessage’s encryption, you wouldn’t be able to keep encryption out of the hands of the bad guys.

For instance, a recent report for the R Street Institute describes the case of Rajib Karim, a British Airways worker convicted of terrorism. “Rajib Karim used a communication encryption scheme that involved first encrypting messages with custom Excel macros, saving the result in a password-protected Word document, compressing the document as an encrypted compressed file and then uploading the compressed, triply encrypted file on an anonymous website.”

At the same time, the national security risks to the general public from undermining encryption are significant. WannaCry, the ransomware that caused chaos in the NHS, relied on an exploit (used as a backdoor) discovered by the US National Security Agency that was not disclosed to Microsoft.

Encryption is not the only time where an ideological obsession with cracking down on the digital Wild West has trumped a pragmatic approach to security.

The 2017 Digital Economy Act will require ISPs to block any pornographic websites that do not use age verification checks. The rules, delayed till the year’s end, pose significant privacy and security risks. Users will be forced to hand over details to potentially insecure websites to prove their age. The law creates substantial opportunities for scammers who may trick users into handing over credit card details and then bill them without their permission on the assumption that people will be too embarrassed to complain. There is also the risk that another Ashley Madison style data breach will expose the private viewing habits of millions.

We should resist attempts to regulate the internet, but not simply out of liberal instinct. The truth is that the proposals to tame internet’s wild west culture are often unworkable and the unintended consequences they risk far outweigh any potential benefit.

Sam Dumitriu is the Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute