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23 March 2021updated 29 Jun 2021 1:24pm

Tech giants should pay the price for the abuse posted on their sites

Julie Burchill’s harassment of Ash Sarkar was enabled by an effective multi-billion dollar a year subsidy handed by nation states to Facebook and Twitter.

By Dominic Ponsford

Sunday Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill’s libel payout to Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar has been held up as evidence that the press is as bigoted as Prince Harry claims.

But the truth is that Burchill’s campaign of “abuse, harassment and smears” would never have got past an editor. It’s not evidence of bigoted press, because it never appeared in any publication. Rather, it is evidence of tech platforms that are out of control.

Burchill’s bile (and that of thousands of others on social media) is a result of an outdated regulatory regime which enables tech platforms to profit from hatred, harassment and disinformation – and which effectively sees nation states hand them a multi-billion dollar annual subsidy.

Burchill targeted Sarkar on Twitter with disparaging statements about her religion and then encouraged her followers on Facebook to “wade in”. Her posts will have been viewed thousands, if not millions of times, helping to generate advertising revenue for the two tech giants.

But while Burchill faces a “substantial” – and deserved – libel payout plus legal costs, executives at Facebook and Twitter continue to count their revenue untroubled by M’Learned friends.

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[See also: What the term “Big Tech” tells us about the future of Silicon Valley titans]

That Burchill was allowed to harass and disparage someone on Facebook and Twitter over a period of days is a symptom of the platforms’ failure to police dangerous and damaging content. She was enabled by the European Union’s eCommerce Directive which was passed in 2000 to insulate fledgling technology companies like Google from being sued for the content which they hosted. The eCommerce Directive treated online platforms like utility providers rather than media companies. The US has a similar regulation: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996.

Although the eCommerce directive no longer applies in the UK post Brexit, the UK government has committed to upholding the protection it gives to user-generated content pending the creation of new online safety regulation

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These regulations have helped two companies in particular to amass vast profits: Google and Facebook. Together, the pair are reckoned to account for around 80 per cent of the digital advertising sold in the UK and US. In the UK, that’s more than £10bn a year.

Google is now the biggest media company in the world, with revenue last year of $183bn, while Facebook’s income totalled $71bn, and Twitter (the minnow of the group) made $4bn.

In all three cases, these companies have become media giants in part because they are able to publish content and sell advertising without needing to be concerned with whether anything is true (or even legal). Last month, for example, a British man was jailed for five months after writing on Facebook that a local newspaper reporter “needs raping”. According to a Freedom of Information Act request in 2018, UK police investigate more than 500 death threats published on the platform every year.

This issue was highlighted today as the Guardian reported how Facebook moderator guidelines allow death threats against public figures, and Press Gazette revealed Reporters Without Borders is suing the platform for allowing hate speech to proliferate.

[See also: Leader: The Big Tech reckoning]

Because tech giants do not have to take responsibility for content (which is nearly all provided freely by users), the cost of content production is tiny. In contrast, news publishers compete with them for advertising eye-balls, but do so hogtied by the fact their content needs to be professionally checked for a range of legal issues including defamation, breach of privacy and contempt of court.

Assuming news organisations spend only 10 per cent of revenue on fact-checking and compliance (which is an exceedingly low estimate), that effectively amounts to regulators handing Google, Facebook and others a subsidy in kind worth billions.

Facebook and Google have both pledged to pay news publishers worldwide $333m a year for the next three years. That investment has helped stave off the threat of regulation in Australia, which would have forced them to share revenue with publishers. But given that legislators have already handed these platforms a get-out-of-jail-free card worth tens of billions, one could argue that the pair are getting off cheaply by agreeing to ad-hoc content deals with publishers.

The bigger issue is that while the tech giants stave off regulation, more individuals will endure ordeals such as that suffered by Ash Sarkar.

The answer is to insist that with huge profits comes responsibility, and for national governments to make all media companies take care over the content they publish. For professional news publishers this would also give them a more level playing field on which to compete against the tech companies.