The government is concerned. Bad things are happening. The internet is a corrupting and subversive influence, tipping bad people over the edge into depravity and evil deeds. Something must be done.
Child porn, radicalising websites, other distasteful or criminal material need to be controlled. They are damaging our society and creating deviants and criminals.
The call for “internet companies” to step in to try to prevent this is understandable. After all, they stand between the bad people publishing this bad stuff and the innocent users who risk being corrupted, radicalised and deranged by what they see.
Responsible action by “internet companies” is needed to tame the wilder, antisocial extremes of behaviour online.
If you pause to think, you might wonder why these internet companies aren’t already doing something about it without being dragged in to see the headmaster. Everything on the internet has some sort of interaction with an “internet company”, whether it is hosting, uploading, streaming, aggregating or whatever. If their users are doing bad things, you would have thought they might want to do something about it. Why do they need to be summoned by the government to point out the obvious?
Well, one reason might be that there was a law passed more than a decade ago which specifically exempted them from any responsibility for what their users do and publish using their facilities.
In fact, because of the way the law is worded, it almost obliges internet companies not to check or have any awareness of what their users are doing. Once they are aware of illegal or infringing activity, they are obliged to act to stop it, but as long as they’re unaware they have no liability.
The law actually enshrines ignorance as a legal defence. Awareness is an expensive and risky business so actively policing and monitoring what people are publishing is an unappealing option. Ignorance is bliss. Profitable bliss.
The law in question is the european E-commerce directive which creates broad exemptions for “intermediaries” on the internet.
The rationale for that law is obvious but the effect it has had is perhaps less positive than was intended. I have written before about the catastrophic effects for copyright and the creative industries. The problems of criminal and deviant activities which are so exercising the government at the moment would seem, at the very least, not to be helped either.
Of course it’s not true to say that internet companies should be blamed for the bad things that other people do. It’s not their fault and it’s not entirely within their power to prevent it either.
However, when you have written a law which specifically disincentises them from doing anything at all to exercise any control, and then find yourself calling them in for a meeting to ask them nicely if they wouldn’t mind making a little more effort, you should perhaps ask yourself whether you have got the balance quite right.
Pub landlords don’t make anybody get drunk but they can still lose their licence for allowing excessive drunkenness. Football clubs don’t organise riots but they can still be penalised for the bad behaviour of their fans. Where responsibility is at least partly shared, more responsible behaviour tends to emerge. Where someone is made immune from consequences, responsible behaviour is less likely to emerge.
The e-commerce directive is the unintended consequences law. Whatever protection it gave to the mewling, vulnerable, infant internet is no longer needed. The internet has grown up into a strapping teenager, able to stand on its own two feet and behave like a grown-up. It’s time it was given the responsibilities to go with the freedoms and profits.