It has long been the case that the law lags behind our social and technological development, sometimes by a considerable margin. However, it looks like the law is finally getting ready to catch up when it comes to digital platforms like Facebook, as regulators in several countries are in the process of proposing a range of measures intended to curb the power, and perhaps even allow oversight, of these platforms.
In the wake of widespread privacy invasion, accusations of spreading misinformation, and even of enabling election interference, it appears that the unbridled freedom of huge digital companies that collect and disseminate data could be coming to an end, as committees in the UK and Australia propose regulatory frameworks based on the outcomes of 3 major reports into the issue.
Traditionally, platforms like Facebook, Twitter etc. defend themselves against accusations of this nature by calling themselves “distribution platforms.” In other words, they are simply providing a platform for the users to distribute their own content on, and are therefore not responsible for any content that appears.
Despite this however, and despite each of the commissions having very different scopes in terms of the aspects of the platforms which they were investigating, all of the recent reports have seen these platforms as more than simply distributors when it comes to things like news, and feel that a certain level of responsibility exists for the content posted on their platforms.
In addition, each report felt that the digital platforms should be brought more fully into the legal and regulatory environment, including the possibility of putting in place specific rules for platforms such as these in order to make them part of the general regulation of communications.
Each of the reports, having different scope, has proposed different areas in which they feel legislation would be beneficial. The ACCC report, for example, feels that a code of practice similar to their existing communications regulator code would be ideal. This would require the platforms to specify which content was produced under journalistic standards (and could therefore be expected to be more legitimate), but while the platform would have to identify such content, it would be up to the creators / publishers of that content to meet the required standard.
In the UK, the Cairncross report on the other hand, suggested a new type of regulator who would monitor and report on the platforms own initiatives to improve the reliability of news, as well as recommending new codes on indexing and ranking content, and the treatment of ads.
The ACCC also proposed a so-called “algorithms regulator” which would monitor the placement of news and ads in search results or feeds, and whether certain platforms were favouring their own services.
Some of the most significant recommendations were around the issue of data privacy, especially given the fact that much of the marketing power of these platforms is derived from access to user data.
In February for example, Germany ruled that Facebook could no longer merge data between Facebook-owned applications without the explicit consent of the user.
Change Is Constant
Whatever happens, and at the moment, it’s still largely up in the air despite things like the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which is similar to our own upcoming POPI act, there is little doubt that national legal frameworks are working on adapting to the information age.
And as such, we can expect that one way or another, things will start to change in the digital landscape with regard to what can be published, what data can be collected, and how that data will be allowed to be used.