Stephen Fry has called for Facebook and other “aggregating news agencies” to be reclassified as publishers in order to stop fake news and online abuse spreading by making social media subject to the same legal responsibilities as traditional news websites.
Outlining his “reformation” for the internet, as part of the Hay literary festival’s programme to mark the quincentenary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 1517, Fry accused social media platforms of refusing to “take responsibility for those dangerous, defamatory, inflammatory and fake items whose effects will have legal consequences for traditional printed or broadcast media, but which they can escape”.
“One thesis I could immediately nail up to the tent flag is to call for aggregating news agencies like Facebook to be immediately classified as publishers. At the moment, they are evading responsibility for their content as they can claim to be platforms, rather than publishers. Given that they are now a major source of news for 80% of the population, that is clearly an absurd anomaly,” he said.
“If they, and Twitter and like platforms recognised their responsibilities as publishers, it would certainly help them better police their content for unacceptable libels, defamations, threats and other horrors, that a free belief in the value of the press would, as a matter of course, be expected to control.”
Last week, it was announced that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were facing tough new pan-European laws, forcing them to remove hate speech and sexually explicit videos or face steep fines.
Fry said he also believed they would soon be forced into new legal responsibilities, and deemed the issue “frankly small potatoes” compared with “some huge potatoes [that] are looming”.
Citing the failure at British Airways’ IT system on Saturday that led to BA flights being grounded at Heathrow and Gatwick airports, Fry cautioned that the world’s reliance on digital systems would also inevitably prompt a cataclysmic cyber-attack and bring on a “digital winter for humankind”.
“An extinction-level event … will obliterate our title deeds, eliminate our personal records, annul our bank accounts and life savings, delete all the archives and accumulated data of our existences and create a kind of digital winter for humankind,” he warned.
During the talk, Fry also addressed the rise of big data, which has seen private companies competing for and using the personal data of millions for corporate gain, the gig economy of Uber and Deliveroo; the inability of governments worldwide to keep up with technological progress; and live-streaming services like Facebook Live allowing people to broadcast acts of violence and self-harm.
Using the myth of Pandora’s Box – where opening a container unleashed evils on the world but left hope trapped inside – as an analogy for the development of online abuse and trolling, Fry said the speed of technological development meant that problems associated with technology were now irreversible.
“The dark side of the rise of machines and the sudden obsolescence of so many careers and jobs; the potential for crime, exploitation, extortion; suppression and surveillance; and even newer forms of cyberterrorism, give us the collywobbles and are challenges for certain. But we must understand that it is going to happen, collywobbles or not, because the lid is already off the jar. So the best we can do is keep the lid of the jar and let hope fly out.”
Having bought his first computer in 1982, Fry is considered an enthusiast of computer technology, being an early adopter of the internet and social media.
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