Regulating Social Media

Before we start running headlong at this topic, like participants in the annual Cheese Rolling festival at Cooper’s Hill (with similar consequences), let us first consider definition:

Social media, to my mind, includes the likes of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (owned by Justin Timberlake – who’d have thought it?), Foursquare et al. Linkedin’s a sticky one – business social media, anyone? (It’s like ‘business casual’ – a concept that no-one really understands and no-one gets right. Ever.)

Digital Media – again, to my mind – includes email, instant messaging, blogs and corporate, business or personal websites.

Therefore – social media is a subset of digital media. This is important, because in all the hysteria that’s tsunamied up around social media as the new Jesus, there is a tendency to apply the term ‘social media’ to anything to do with t’internet in or on which some hapless sap is expressing an opinion. A corporate blog is NOT social media. This blog – lovely, bijou and jejeune though it is – is NOT social media. Instant messaging – in its traditional and most basic form – is NOT social media.

One more thought then, before we rush off into the weeds of the regulation of social media debate – is Blackberry Messenger social media (because you CAN form groups, and add statuses – statii? – share pictures etc) or is it, as a glorified instant messenger, digital media and thus a less insidious thing altogether? Simply, you might say, a method of communication – like email, telephone, fax, telegraph, post or a bloke in a loincloth with a piece of parchment in a cleft stick? (Bring back cleft sticks!)

And this is important, because – clearly – what’s driving this post is the recent events in London, and the allegation that riots and looting were organised on Twitter and Blackberry Messenger. Now this is clearly horseshit. As Sophy Silver of Facebook said in a recent PR Week supplement on reputation management – “a house party that gets out of hand is not a ‘Facebook party’ – it is just a house party”. In the same way that riots in London are not Facebook riots or Twitter riots or Blackberry riots – they are simply riots, occasioned by the feral, primitive, selfish urges of the uneducated, immoral, lumpen few. In the not-very-distant past, they’d have used ‘phones to organise their neanderthal, simian rampages – yet no-one would have called for the telephone network to be more stringently regulated.

And now I read that David Cameron is to call representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry to the House of Commons to discuss “stop(ping) people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality”. What he’s talking about – in the bigger scheme of things – is regulating the internet.

Another voice, advocating roughly the same thing, but for different reasons and from a different viewpoint, is Anthony Hilton, City Commentator on the Evening Standard (London) and writing in PR Week. (Sorry, you’ll have to subscribe to the website to see the article.) In brief, he’s saying that the internet allows for anyone to broadcast what they like, without any sort of filter – the filter that traditional media (journalists) provide.

See, here’s the thing. I actually agree with Cameron and Hilton. I feel there should be regulation of the internet. There’s too much shite that goes on for it to be unregulated. There’s no recourse, d’you see, no comeback. There’s anonymity, which allows any charlatan to charlat about without a care in the world. It’s irresponsible.

But, and here’s another of those things. It’s arguably too late. Someone should have regulated the internet in 1996, when is started to go mainstream. But they didn’t and now – unles you’re the UAE, where your population are used to being told to stop what they’re doing and get in line – you can’t just bring in random firewalls and prohibitions. It’s fine for the boy turd Zuckerberg to say that ‘privacy is no longer the norm’, and it may, in some senses, be true, but it’s not what people want.

People want privacy, they want anonymity – mainly because it’s a right and because it allows them to live their lives the way they want to without being put under a spotlight and sold insurance and instant whip via cold calls and doordrops – but also so they can hide behind it when they are phishing, spamming and trolling.

I want privacy and anonymity.

Luckily, real, effective regulation of the internet is probably an impossibility. That being said, I was talking to an Enterprise Risk professional the other day – and one of his major concerns in terms of threats facing business today was the ease with which rumour, falsehood and propaganda can be spread via the internet (social media especially) and the potentially enormous audiences that are available for this rumour, falsehood and propaganda.

His solution? A type of global identity card. If you want to use the internet, you will have one identity and one identity only. Every time you launch your browser, you will be greeted by a pop-up screen – let’s call it Global Authentication Portal (get into the GAP!) – into which you will have to type your identity and password.  (Probably a one-time password to prevent identity theft.) From then on, everything you do on the internet will be recorded (not monitored necessarily – but recorded) and should you be a rioter organising a riot, and you are caught, this internet record would be used to bring you to justice. As an alternative scenario – if you are a nasty troll, persecuting someone on Facebook, and you persecute them to death, again your internet record will show your responsibility.

And as I listened to this, I thought – what a marvellous idea. And then I realised that some form of authority would have to run the GAP, and that, undoubtedly that authority would not be able to resist using the internet records of all the world’s internet users for its own ends.

You see, regulation of the internet is a laudable goal. But it will take away privacy and anonymity and will bring us one step further towards Orwell’s 1984. (Which, obviously, was 27 years ago.)

And just imagine the Facebook riots that would take place when the GAP was announced.

2 thoughts on “Regulating Social Media

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