United Kingdom's tech clampdown could miss goal after soccer racism

0

Press play to listen to this article

LONDON — Lawmakers want a shot at big tech over the racist online abuse of England's Euro 2020 footballers — but critics fear they'll end up hitting the crossbar.

U.K. ministers say they have a plan to force social media companies to better deal with the kind of hatred aimed at some of England's young players after the side's Sunday night heartbreak against Italy.

But big questions remain about whether the proposed law will really achieve its aims, amid concern it leaves too much power in the hands of social media companies and swerves bigger issues of law enforcement and the tone set by senior politicians.

Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were all bombarded with racist messages on social media in the aftermath of Sunday night's penalty shootout in the final against Italy. The move drew swift condemnation from England's Football Association (FA), while Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday night urged fans who targeted the players to “crawl back under the rock from which you emerged.”

In the wake of the row, Downing Street pointed to the U.K.'s flagship draft Online Safety Bill, introduced in May, as its primary way of stamping out online abuse.

The bill, due to be examined by a cross-party group of MPs before being put to a vote later this year, has been a long time in the making.

Under the plans, a duty of care towards users would be imposed on social media platforms, enforced by communications regulator Ofcom. Fines of up to £18 million — or 10 percent of annual global turnover, whichever is higher — could be levied on companies who fail to comply.

‘Self-regulation'

Jo Stevens, Shadow Culture Secretary for the opposition Labour Party, is not convinced the proposals, as they currently stand, would deal with the kind of abuse meted out to the England side.

“If you were Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka you would have to do what you currently do, which is basically make a complaint to the platforms themselves, wait a very long time for them to decide whether or not what was posted breaches their community guidelines, and they might at some point get the person to take that stuff down, or get them off the platform,” Stevens told POLITICO. “But that would be it. It is still essentially a system of self-regulation.”

The draft Bill has no guidance on stamping out anonymous abuse and no codes of practice on kicking out racism, Stevens said.

Labour wants the law to immediately make social media executives criminally liable for their failures — a back-up power the U.K. government wants to keep in reserve and bring in later if needed.

“Platforms can just carry on operating basically as they do currently,” Stevens said of the current plans. “Abuse will continue to spread freely and get amplified.”

A spokesperson for the U.K.'s culture department, overseeing the bill, said the law would “tackle anonymous abuse,” but made clear the government wants to avoid “a blanket ban on anonymity online because for some groups such as people exploring their sexuality or suffering from domestic abuse it is important.”

“However, all social media companies will have to meet their duty of care, which will mean stopping repeat offenders from opening new accounts and working with the authorities to make it easier to find people who set up accounts anonymously to abuse others.”

‘Loophole'

Yet concerns are also being felt in English football's governing body. Edleen John, the FA’s equality, diversity and inclusion director, says the bill needs to recognize that it's not always “overt words that are going to be at play” when it comes to online abuse.

“Sometimes it is going to be emojis, sometimes it is going to be pile-ons,” she said. “Sometimes it is abuse that is technically legal but, of course, is just as harmful and has just the same level of psychological impact as if somebody was out-and-out calling you a discriminatory term or abusive word.”

England's players were targeted with monkey emojis, a racist symbol in some contexts, and John points out that can reveal a “loophole” in platforms' community standards.

“If I have a son or a daughter and I'm calling them a cheeky little monkey and I use the emoji, that isn't the same as when I am using that emoji aimed at a black football player who has just missed a penalty or had a bad match,” she warns. “Actually, the problem is the [platforms'] community standards don't provide enough clear or strict guidance or guidelines that the organizations then use and follow through.”

Poppy Wood, a senior adviser at Reset, a lobby group set up by former Hillary Clinton aide Ben Scott to push for new tech rules, says it's still unclear whether the draft bill will really get at the underlying problems. While harassment is illegal, she points out, the majority of individual incidents of abuse are not against the law, even if hateful and offensive.

She believes the legislation should force social media companies to improve their underlying systems, rather than just asking them to write rules for content deemed unacceptable.

That could mean taking steps to reduce the amplification of certain posts, or de-monetizing hateful content. “We may have the right to state an opinion, but we don’t have a right for that to reach the widest possible audience,” Wood said. “The draft bill doesn’t quite reflect this, but it can very easily.”

‘Immediately traceable'

Others say the enforcement of existing laws should be the government's first priority if it's serious about online abuse.

“Government needs to ensure that the police and the justice system enforce existing criminal law, rather than abdicating their responsibility by making this the social media platforms’ problem,” Heather Burns, policy manager at the Open Rights Group said. “Social media sites do not operate courts and prisons.”

Burns points out that virtually “all of the current wave of abuse is immediately traceable to the individuals who shared it,” with social media platforms already able to “hand details to law enforcement.”

Former Conservative Cabinet minister David Davis, a longstanding civil liberties advocate, said he believed Sunday's abuse could spark a “mass movement” demand for change. But he warned MPs to “think coolly and calmly about it over some time.”

Beyond social media, there's also the fraught question of how Johnson's government itself challenges racism.

His administration has already sent mixed messages on taking the knee, the anti-racism protest which originated with American football player Colin Kaepernick. Downing Street last month said Johnson was “more focused on action rather than gestures” after England's own players dropped in protest before their Euro 2020 games. Home Secretary Priti Patel dismissed the move as “gesture politics” and declined to criticize fans who booed players who took the knee before games.

Johnson was asked again about the protest at Monday's Downing Street press conference, saying he'd always believed “people should feel free to show their respect and show how much they condemn racism in this country in any way that they choose.”

It's an about-face not lost on England centre-back Tyrone Mings. He told Patel Monday night: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Tech policy coverage: Pro Technology. Our expert journalism and suite of policy intelligence tools allow you to seamlessly search, track and understand the developments and stakeholders shaping EU Tech policy and driving decisions impacting your industry. Email [email protected] with the code ‘TECH’ for a complimentary trial.

View original post