There’s a big problem emerging for social media companies (and tech firms more generally): they don’t really know how to respond to Government buck-passing and pressure on the one hand, and rising demands for privacy and data security on the other.
Last month the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) made a big deal of the fact that Facebook had in its databanks content that might have spared the life of Lee Rigby, the soldier brutally murdered by Islamist extremists. One of his assassins, Michael Adebowale, had posted on the network of his desire to slaughter a soldier six months before the slaying occurred.
ISC chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind came close to accusing Facebook of having blood on its hands, because of the failure to prevent Rigby’s murder by failing to act as a wing of the state’s intelligence machinery. For its part, Facebook responded like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, paralysed and apparently incapable of responding with an insightful and confident position. In a statement, it tepidly muttered something about disallowing terrorist content and having an automated programme for blocking unacceptable message content (it failed to detect Adebowale’s message, however)
On that occasion, it fell to Isabella Sankey, policy director at the civil rights group Liberty, to jump in: the ISC was deliberately generating more heat than light on the issue to deflect attention from the failure of security services. Sankey said:
“The ISC shamefully spins the facts seeking to blame the communications companies for not doing the agencies’ work for them.”
In her column this week, The Guardian’s technology correspondent, Jemima Kiss, puts her finger directly on the right button: there’s an ethical vacuum at the heart of tech stories like this. Despite what the ISC might claim, social networks, from Twitter to YouTube to Facebook itself have developed sophisticated processes to manage terrorist propaganda, including the hideous beheading videos of Isis. But that involves making complex editorial judgements, without the intricate skills, experience and legal knowledge that editorial organisations have in their DNA.
There are complex issues at stake that can’t be reduced to commercial calculus alone, nor to the deliberations of a technologically uniformed government.