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The Technology 202: Tech companies warn U.K. to consider free speech as it proposes fines for harmful content

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Too broad. And too vague.

Those are the warnings from the tech industry about the United Kingdom's new proposal to penalize Silicon Valley giants if they fail to remove a wide range of harmful content from their platforms. 

Some categories of content the proposal targets in its white paper-- such as terrorist activity and child exploitation-- are clear cut under the law. But others, such as disinformation and cyberbullying, are far murkier. So tech companies are calling on policymakers to provide clearer legal definitions for content that must be removed, before imposing any kind of rule that could impact free speech. 

The Internet Association, a lobbying group representing Silicon Valley companies, said it is committed to online safety in the U.K. Still, as its U.K. executive director Daniel Dyball told my colleague Tony Romm, "we also need to protect freedom of speech and the services consumers love."  

“The scope of the recommendations is extremely wide, and decisions about how we regulate what is and is not allowed online should be made by parliament." 

TechUK, an industry trade group whose members include the U.K. businesses of Google and Facebook, also asked policymakers to provide more guidance on how to address "difficult boundary issues" -- or gray areas where it is not clear cut if a piece of content is harmful and should be removed.

“It is vital that the Government is clear about what it wants to achieve and the trade-offs necessary to do it,” the group wrote in a blog post today. 

Matthew Lesh, the head of research at the think tank the Adam Smith Institute called the proposal “a massive overreach."

Though the laws would only apply in the U.K., the British policymakers' actions could influence policymakers around the world as countries increasingly try to hold tech giants accountable.

But the quick skepticism and backlash from industry highlights the tricky balance for policymakers considering ways to keep people safe online without invoking concerns about censorship. This challenge is only going to increase as policymakers view the spread of violent content as a threat to public safety; incidents like the deadly shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand underscore how tech platforms can foster and amplify violent content.

And the debate could heat up in Washington, too: On Tuesday, House Democrats will host a hearing about the spread of white nationalism on tech platforms, which will reportedly include witnesses from Google and Facebook. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans will host a hearing on the platforms alleged bias against conservatives. That hearing will also put a spotlight on the companies' content moderation efforts. 

The U.K.'s plan shows that lawmakers are tiring of leaving it up to the companies to self-regulate. 

“The Internet can be brilliant at connecting people across the world — but for too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement Sunday.

Other countries around the world have also passed laws similar to the proposal the United Kingdom is considering. Last week, Australia passed a landmark law that would hit companies and executives with fines and jail time if they fail to remove violent content. And Germany has a law that allows regulators to fine companies that fail to remove hate speech within 24 hours. 

The U.K.'s proposal comes a week after Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg called for greater regulation of the Internet in a Washington Post op-ed. He identified harmful content as one of the key areas they should focus on, and he recommended that third-party bodies set standards governing the distribution of harmful content. 

Facebook told Tony in a statement on Sunday that it would work with Parliament to ensure the proposal is effective. 

“New rules for the Internet should protect society from harm while also supporting innovation, the digital economy and freedom of speech,” Facebook said in a statement. “These are complex issues to get right and we look forward to working with the Government and Parliament to ensure new regulations are effective.” 


BITS:  A new survey published by Nieman Lab underscores that consumers’ expectations for privacy do not always match up with companies’ actual practices. Fifty-fwo percent of people do not expect Google to collect data about their activities when they use services like Chrome or apps like Waze, according to a survey of more than one thousand adults commissioned by the online publishers trade group Digital Content Next. The survey also found that 57% do not expect Google to track a person’s browsing across the Web to make more targeted ads, according to the survey.

Nearly two out of three respondents did not expect Google to track their location data when they aren’t using the Google platform or app. “The results of the study are consistent with our Facebook study: People don’t want surveillance advertising,” wrote Digital Content Next chief executive Jason Kint. “A majority of consumers indicated they don’t expect to be tracked across Google’s services, let alone be tracked across the web in order to make ads more targeted." 

NIBBLES: New Zealand privacy commissioner John Edwards slammed social media companies, calling Facebook "morally bankrupt pathological liars," The Guardian's Eleanor Ainge Roy reported.  “Facebook cannot be trusted,” wrote Edwards.

“[They] allow the live streaming of suicides, rapes, and murders, continue to host and publish the mosque attack video, allow advertisers to target ‘Jew haters’ and other hateful market segments, and refuse to accept any responsibility for any content or harm. “They #dontgiveazuck” wrote Edwards.

Edwards later deleted the tweets, saying they had prompted “toxic and misinformed traffic."

Edwards' comments were in response to an ABC interview, in which Zuckerberg did not commit to changing any of Facebook's livestreaming tech, despite public pressure to do so since the New Zealand shootings. 

BYTES: The United Kingdom's Competition and Market Authority is probing Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony to see if their auto-renewal pracitices are fair and if customers are easily able to receive refunds, according to Engadget's Jon Fingas. 

"The move is the second part of the CMA's response to a 'super-complaint' on the loyalty penalty, or the tendency for some companies (not just in gaming) to punish long-serving customers by making it difficult or costly to leave," Fingas writes. 

As Fingas notes, it's unclear if the agency will take action against the companies because its investigation is just getting started. However, there are recent examples to raise concerns. 


Tech news from the private sector:

Pinterest Is Expected to Set IPO Price Range Below Last Valuation (Wall Street Journal)

Amazon Wants You to Use Alexa to Track Health Care (Wall Street Journal)

The Improbable Rise of Huawei (Foreign Policy)


Tech news from the public sector:

How France’s new digital minister plans to regulate tech (TechCrunch)

Scheme to Swap Fake iPhones Adds Up to $900,000 Loss for Apple, Prosecutors Say (New York Times)

Here’s the US Army version of HoloLens that Microsoft employees were protesting (The Verge)

How Waze is using data pacts, beacons, and carpools to win over cities (VentureBeat)


Trump’s moonshot: The next giant leap or another empty promise? (Christian Davenport)