Is It Really Fair To Treat US Tech Giants As Broadcasters?

There has been a lot of talk about regulating the big tech giants, but it's fair to say that suggestions will turn into action at some point, fairly soon.

The evidence? Well, on the one hand, we have Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, calling for tougher penalties for platforms that do not remove extremist content within an hour. This is because he claims a lot of the damage done by such content is achieved soon after it has been posted. 

Then last week we have the BBC Director General, Tony Hall, calling for Netflix and Amazon to be regulated as if they were British broadcasters. A part of me did wonder what those two commercial companies would have to say back to a public organisation that is guaranteed licence fee payers money every year. Yes, regulations are higher -- but that regular, guaranteed income stream must be pretty sweet too?

Now, tonight we have the head of Ofcom, Sharon White, delivering a speech to the Royal Television Society and Press Gazette is hinting they know what she's going to say -- let's face it, anyone in the media knows they have an embargoed copy of the speech and so are just revealing it's content as what she is 'expected to say'.

The "prediction" suggests Ofcom is pointing out there is now a blurred line between broadcast and online and the two should be regulated as one. That would mean extremist content would have to be removed and sites would have to protect free speech while also protecting users. Sharon White is specifically "expected" to point out that there is a gap in the loose regulation online and the firmer rules governing broadcasters and that should no longer be the case.

Press Gazette is pointing out that this could lead to a GDPR-style fine for online sites that break a new form of broadcasting code that applies to them. The Telegraph also makes the same point about Juncker's calls for an hour's grace before social media platforms are fined for not removing material.

GDPR appears to be the new high benchmark in fining powers that the EU and UK regulators are falling back on to bring the US tech giants to heel.

There is, of course, the double whammy of the 'link tax' the EU just voted in favour of. It's a crazy law that will require platforms to pay the original copyright holder a fee for linking to their work if they use any of the words from the article -- ie, a headline or standfirst.

The Telegraph has already estimated this could cost them billions of pounds per year. One can only hope that common sense prevails before this becomes a compulsory Regulation.

Regular readers will know that I am no apologist for the way the US tech giants go about their tax accountancy. I do wonder, however, if they had paid their full and fair share of UK tax as well as that owed in other EU states, rather than using clever tactics to avoid them (legally), would the UK and EU be going easier on them right now? 

I think they would still face regulation, but the coordinated attack, the vigour with which GDPR-style fines are being dreamed up to hit them with, it all sounds a little like tax via the back door, doesn't it?

Sure, platforms have to be responsible, but there's no way they want to be hosting extremism in the first place. It's bad for business. Just look at the bad press and boycott Google has suffered. 

The difficulty with online is that these companies are not solely pumping out content -- their millions of users are. It must be a Herculean task to keep on top of it.

A police order to take down content deemed extremist within an hour seems reasonable enough, but expecting the platforms to monitor and be responsible for the millions of comments, videos and posts that are going up every minute of the day is a tough ask -- and expecting them to scour those same posts for copyrighted material and taking it down. Again, it's a tough one. Asking them to pay for the right to link to a publication's content -- that's just plain bizarre. 

I guess I'm like everyone else who is wondering where the line is between being responsible platforms and realistic expectation. Is the cost of policing their own services something they will have to rise to? Or is it being unrealistic?

For the major cases, it goes without saying that terror and threats should be taken down within an hour. The rest of the policing, the paying of "link tax," I'm not so sure about.

Tighter regulation and the prospect of huge fines are looking ever more likely, however, given the direction of travel being taken this week in the UK and European Commission.

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