Two-hour content removal sends startups (and all of us) down a dangerous route.
Several European leaders lead by the British PM have floated the idea for stricter deadlines for internet companies to remove illicit content online. In this post I want to discuss this in the repeated cases of politics throwing problems at tech to “fix it” without sufficient consideration of the root causes and effects on society and economy. Others have written about the current state of play of notice and takedown measures and what tech companies are doing already.
There is no doubt about the importance of effective notice and takedown mechanisms as part of a holistic approach to tackling illicit content online and ultimately a strong rule of law. But there is a fundamental difference between notice and takedown and the duty of care were the latter should be a central role of governments, not companies.
It is not the first time that we hear political leaders to call on companies to resolve problems that do not stem from technology but have a deeper societal or political cause. The call to develop full encryption AND a backdoor for law enforcement is one example or the current proposal to filter all content uploaded by users to address copyright infringements is another. All of these examples show a defencelessness by governments but more importantly shift political duties onto companies and on top of that create adverse effects on competition and innovation.
The fact that most of articles published on this current case seem to address “internet companies” entails the dangerous suggestion that the problem would actually stem from a handful companies rather from terrorism. In Europe it has taken us long to find a consensus that addressing phenomena like irregular migration at its root causes rather than to building walls around Europe. Compelling tech companies to solve a problem they didn’t cause is like building a wall between us and terrorism and hoping for it to stay behind it or to disappear.
To put things into perspective we wouldn’t expect tech companies to make Brexit happen within two month. Throwing a major and never seen before political process, which the entire British government reportedly won’t be able to solve within two years, at technology is neither realistic nor the role tech companies should be playing in our society.
The fact that technology in the recent years has shown us new ways to address complexities seems to have sparked a feeling that we can just throw any problem at a developer and expect a solution within minutes. This is unprecedented in history and should make us wonder to which extend governments are mastering such tasks, or not.
As citizens we should be cautious about such developments or we will find ourselves too far down a path of limiting all kind of aspects of our lives while criminals and terrorists will just find another way to do what they do. Tightening deadlines and shifting liability beyond proportion is like playing a game of cat and mouse instead of addressing the root causes through education, foreign policy and economic opportunities.
The effects of misunderstood problems and wall-like solutions will not show at those “internet companies” that are in the headlines today but it will hit where we do not expect. Small teams of tech startups will find it harder to enter markets and develop new technologies while big ones comply easily. The rules leaders have in mind these days will simply be too expensive for startups to comply with. Illicit content will be displaced rather than tackled.