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What We’re Learning About The Digital Revolution

Pressure is on media/tech giants to do something about fake news, fake ads and every other fake thing. Applying the tourniquet are consumer protection advocates, advertising support groups, publishers, broadcasters and the politicians who love them. Big online providers, insisting they are but technology companies and never, ever, ever media providers, appear a bit disoriented. After all, the money keeps rolling in.

bright colorsLegislation was proposed in the United States Senate (October 19) to apply broadcast political advertising rules to online portals. If passed by both chambers and signed by president Donald Trump the Honest Ads Act would require the display of political ad buyers. For the biggest online platforms - more than 50 million monthly visitors - a big database would be required of all political ads and who bought them with more than US$500 a year. The content of political advertising - “electioneering communications” - would remain, under US law, protected speech. Newspapers are also required under the Federal Election Campaign Act (1971) to make “reasonable efforts” political ads are not bought by foreign nationals. Bots, however, remain untraceable.

Top lawyers for Facebook, Alphabet (owner of Google) and Twitter have been called to appear before US congressional intelligence committees in November. They will plead, almost certainly, for no constraints on the open internet. The business plan demands it. But the drip of independent reporting and research about online tactics of trolls (and troll farms) placing fake news items and demonstrably coercive “electioneering communications” aided by micro-targeting tools has become a river.

The advertising people have freaked out. Global consumer products giants P&G and Unilever pin-pricked the online advertising bubble earlier this year complaining about “brand safety” - from racist ads, sexist ads and fake ads to placements on hate sites - and lowering their digital spending targets. This past week IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) UK revealed a three-step plan to “clean up online advertising,” reported >Campaign

At the first of October rules came into force in Germany requiring quick removal by online providers of hate filled content. There’s a huge fine attached. At a special G7 meeting in Italy this past week with representatives of the big online providers French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said extremist content should be “taken down within two hours of going online,” quoted by French TV channel LCI (October 21). There was no mention of neo-Nazi hate speech.

A committee of the European Parliament voted last week to move forward the e-Privacy Directive, which would put clamps on data collecting cookies the likes of which enable the kind of micro-targeting loved by advertisers, publishers and disreputable trolls. The “privacy by default” rule, if enacted, would have “dramatic implications for the funding of professional journalism in the digital world,” said a joint statement from German publishing groups VDZ and BDZV, quoted by media portal meedia.de (October 20). "Germany must now abandon its reluctance and enter forcefully for a scheme that takes account of privacy and legitimate business models of open web offerings. Otherwise irreversible damage for the future of the free press is threatened.”

Digital concerns and digital rule making are forever intertwined and fraught with competing interests. Online technologies - and the zillions they create - are a generation, it seems, ahead of rule making. “I’m really skeptical of the idea that there can be some regulatory body that can oversee (media tech companies) and force (them) to behave in a virtuous sort of way,” said former The New Republic (TNR) editor Franklin Foer to the Guardian (October 19). Mr. Foer is author of a new book - World Without Mind: the Existential Threat of Big Tech - that details his brief second tenure at TNR after it was acquired by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

“It’s fairly stunning,” he says, “to awaken to what seems like a fresh mainstream media assault on big tech. New media had kind of laid prostrate before these guys, and basically accepted their fate as kind of being tethered to Facebook and Google. It’s like a post-Soviet state having a color revolution to watch media rebel against these companies.”


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