On Tuesday 10th October, I sat down with Mr Cardani, the President of the Italian Telecommunications Authority (AGCOM), and a member of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), set up by the European Commission, to talk about Internet Policy.
The Internet is liberating individuals globally by giving them the ability to roam freely and explore countless fields. In fact, statistics show that currently 51.7% of the world’s population uses the Internet. This shows a growth rate of 976% since 2000, enabling any user to have an audience of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. However, what should be known about the Internet is that it is a double-edged sword. Indeed, as well as the positive aspects of the Internet, there also lies the alarming reality of people fearlessly expressing hate online without much consideration of the impact to other people. This new freedom has made peers judgment insignificant, as many individuals have no self-control in publicly shaming, harassing and humiliating on the Internet.
There is a common pattern in the way web users utilise the Internet, yet there are some individuals who in pursuit of creating visibility on the web, achieve this aim through creating hate speech. As a result, if no one intervenes, there may not be any limits on what citizens may do to get attention. For instance, the more violent the person’s style becomes, the more attention they are convinced that they are likely to attract globally across different media platforms, independently from the actual result. Therefore, the primary purpose for this interview was to gain a better understanding of hate speech online from a regulator’s point of view.
Mr Cardani proposed several means to effectively intervene in the situation of hate speech, out of which the following concepts stood out. Firstly, he stated that, although education is the key intervention, it can be costly, timely and difficult to provide. Further as education is a very common concept, advocated throughout history, one could argue that people generally do not give much consideration to it.
Secondly, the next avenue of intervention discussed was censorship. Mr Cardani clearly stated that this was not a good strategy, as the negation of the web would create two main problems:
1. You peak into millions of personal opinions only to catch a few that agree;
2. Censorship cannot be used to ban an individual’s opinion just because it is contrary to the views of the government. In his own experience as a regulator, he would not use this method unless asked to do so by the state.
Nevertheless, he went on to say that it might be useful if online platforms creators developed an effective software that detected hateful content to automatically eliminate hate speech online. The use of algorithms in this way may not be as damaging as censorship.
Mr Cardani also emphasises that young people of this generation have grown up in the digital world, therefore they possess the ‘digital logic’ contrary to older generations, who are unlikely to possess the said logic. This is a problem as the older generations have the power to make decisions, yet they attempt to solve the problems in the digital world through using their old non-digital logic. This is a real concern as the solutions put in place are not effective in dealing with the problems. It is important that the older generations start thinking digitally and adopt a framework that addresses the problem of hate speech effectively.
The main example of the non-digital logic is that people have grown up thinking of crime and punishment as a means to solve problems. Yet this concept is not as simple when applied in the digital world due to the lack of jurisdiction present in this world.
For instance, legal cases can take up years to resolve and on the contrary, the digital world is timeless due to its rapidly evolving nature. Also, there is an issue of what jurisdiction to use when trying to find the legal culprit in a world that is truly global. The answer could be to drop legislation due to its inherent time-consuming characteristics, as well as the fact that laws run after realities. Consequently, they are always late in being created. For instance, before enacting a law, the problem must be understood. This concept does not cater for the digital world, as this is a new phenomenon. This arguably makes legislation less effective in dealing with hate speech on the web.
In addressing this issue, Mr Cardani proposed that an alternative means should be used to address this new phenomenon. This could entail inviting big corporations like Google, as well as psychologists, sociologists and industry experts to discuss whether this kind of companies requires the support of regulations to deal with issues of hate speech or to determine if they are able to address this problem through their own resources. He emphasised that there is a real need for both sides to collaboratively work together. They must listen to each other’s sides to come up with an efficient solution. This is likely to be effective as corporations such as Google are aware of their trade and thus are able to provide insight that the legislature/ regulator may not be aware of.
He went to add that if speaking with corporations does not work, then the legislature/parliament could do what it normally does. This normally involves warning and threatening big corporations through enactment of laws and fines.
On the contrary, this idea of round tables discussion could be seen as a temporary deviation from addressing the problem. Nonetheless, this deviation is needed due to the fact that these problems are incredibly new and policy makers have yet to adapt the traditional instruments such as legislation to these new problems. Once a new policy is created, it must be vetted and proved by experts before it is enacted. It is also important that the legislation enacted must be without ‘a blind faith’. The idea is that the legislation will take care of all the problems faced by the digital world. If we look at history, once upon a time the cutting of a hand of a thief was common, yet this has changed over time through adaptation to problems.
Another vital concept, which Mr Cardani focused on, is that big corporations must start to invest in production costs that cater to their platform malfunctions such as hate speech. If corporations were to take this view seriously, it would be responsible production, which is in fact in their own capital interest. If corporations do not do this, arguably, these malfunctions may become a ticking bomb, in the event of it exploding, it would inherently damage their product through bad reputation. For example, who wants to be associated with a platform that is known for spreading hate? This can be seen from the recent events where major brands including Pepsi and GSK pulled their adverts from YouTube after they were found to be appearing next to content promoting hate speech. Therefore, companies must not only invest in their future growth but also cater for any malfunctions that come with their platforms.
It is of concern that currently, there is not much that the European Commission is able to do to address the problem of hate online. Although, this problem is evident in all the member states, the commission must enact a directive that is fair between all the 28 member states. Nonetheless, this issue is regularly discussed and one conclusion that seems evident is that the route of the problem is not hate speech on its own, it is the improper use of the net where individuals use the protected characteristics such as ethnicity to target and bully members of society.
In summary, although the problems of hate speech is not clear-cut due to it being a new phenomenon, one of the best ways to find a solution is through starting discussions with the organisations. This enables policy makers to better understand the problem at hand when trying to create an effective solution. Furthermore, as education is another great method to counter hate speech, albeit timely and costly, maybe the solution is to think digitally. For instance, by creating a viral audio-visual campaign that educates web users globally to think before they act. This could potentially prove to be very effective.