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Updated May 13, 2023, 8:39am EDT
techpolitics

How not to regulate the web

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The News

Tech companies deliberately feed kids “addictive content that wreaks havoc on their mental health.” That’s the opinion of four U.S. senators — two Republicans, two Democrats — who introduced a bill to Congress which would require age verification for all social media sites and would ban under-13s from using them at all.

Their proposal is part of a wider, global effort to regulate the internet. Also in the U.S., the EARN IT Act intends to combat child sexual exploitation online, and will require all platforms to moderate their content. A similar bill is before the European Parliament. The U.K. government hopes to pass a wide-ranging law this summer that will include both age verification and a demand for moderation.

Politicians trying to control digital communication is not new, but these efforts are accelerating. Sometimes they are driven by concerns — well-founded or otherwise — about spying, such as China allegedly siphoning data from TikTok; sometimes by concerns about the dangers of artificial intelligence. But often they are driven by the desire to protect internet users from some sort of harm.

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Tom’s view

These sprawling efforts are confused and likely to have profound unintended consequences. The U.K.’s Online Safety Bill is a case in point. It wants to force platforms to moderate illegal or harmful content. But some platforms — notably the messaging apps WhatsApp and Signal — have no idea what content they contain, because messages sent on them are “end-to-end encrypted.” The only people who can read the messages are the sender and the recipient.

To comply with the Online Safety Bill — or the U.S. and EU equivalents — WhatsApp would have to give the government a “backdoor” to allow it to break that encryption. That would hugely impair the security of the system, a cryptography engineer told me. Even if you trust the government’s intentions, you shouldn’t trust its cybersecurity: Government computer systems are vast, leaky, and easily hacked.

Half of the British population uses WhatsApp, but because 98% of WhatsApp’s users are outside the U.K., the Meta-owned app says it will block U.K.-based users rather than compromise the security of the app. If the U.S. and EU go ahead with their own bills, they may well face a similar result: Even the U.S. only accounts for 4% of WhatsApp’s global use.

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Perhaps losing access to WhatsApp would be a price worth paying if the bill genuinely reduced harm. But experts I spoke to say that that’s unlikely. Bills like the U.K.’s don’t define what “harm” means, Andrew Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute told me. Are we concerned about psychological wellbeing? Mental illness? Crime? All of the above? Imagine, he says, pushing an “offline safety bill” which tries to prevent everything from car accidents to credit card fraud, all without any clear idea of what the underlying metric of “harm” is. The EU and U.S. legislation faces similar problems.

And these huge pieces of legislation also take many years to actually pass and be implemented, so “even if by some magic they work,” says Pete Etchells, an internet psychology professor at Bath Spa University, “they’ll only work for the tech we have. In three years they’ll be obsolete.”

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Room for Disagreement

My boss Ben Smith, Semafor’s editor-in-chief, disagrees with me quite strongly, so I’m giving our usual Room for Disagreement slot over to him.

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Tom’s argument leaves out the two most important themes affecting this space right now: Pornography and China. From France to Utah, Western politicians have decided that giving children unlimited access to pornography is a mistake, and they have huge popular support in banning it, whether with a sledgehammer or a scalpel.

Second, China has in fact proved that you can tightly regulate the internet, and has tight and fairly effective controls on porn and video games as, perhaps, a side effect of their tight controls on criticism of their government. Politicians in democratic countries are paying attention. If you watched the TikTok hearings in Washington, you would have heard repeated questions about why TikTok isn’t as clean as its Chinese counterpart.

The internet isn’t any harder to regulate than traffic or fisheries, and this generation of politicians are far more native to it than to most things they regulate. Hold on to your VPNs.

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Notable

  • The Signal Foundation, which owns the secure messaging platform Signal, says in a blog post that like WhatsApp it will not comply with the U.K.’s regulation. “Let me be blunt,” its president wrote. “Encryption is either broken for everyone, or it works for everyone. There is no way to create a safe backdoor.”
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