Last week, yet another technology company came under fire for hosting and distributing unacceptable material. This time, it was Ask.fm, which is currently engaged in a furious public relations war to clear its name since a teenager killed herself after receiving a torrent of bullying and abuse on the site.
Yet, as tragic as Hannah Smith’s death surely was, the worst accusation that can be levelled at Ask.fm is that they have failed to respond quickly and appropriately to a recent surge of teenage users who were attracted to the narcissism and implied protection of anonymity that the site offers.
And I have some sympathy with those who say that this was primarily a failure of parenting, as heartless as that conclusion may seem. Is Ask.fm a wicked company run by bad people? No, I don’t think so. Did they get overwhelmed by attention and taken by surprise as they rapidly acquired hundreds of thousands of vulnerable young users? Probably.
And let’s remember, too, that although there were tragic consequences to the bullying that happened on Ask.fm, no one is suggesting that network hosts anything more sinister than words and pictures from a few potty-mouthed bullies. There are internet companies out there, however, with cases to answer.
Infinitely more culpable, it seems to me, are those companies who have been made aware of murderers, criminals and even organised terrorist groups using their systems but who elect to do nothing to stop their products being used to spread abuse, threats and, most troubling of all, messages from terrorists.
How can it be that the Taliban are permitted to run a Twitter account? How can it be that Facebook has been such an effective conduit and organisational tool for Islamist demagogues? Why has YouTube been so reluctant to act quickly when extremist content is reported to the company? Why does Reddit host links that explain how to beat women?
The decisions being made are baffling and look alarmingly like the purposeful defence of the indefensible. It can’t be that we’ve missed a spontaneous epidemic of radical Islamism among Silicon Valley chief executives – someone would have noticed the girlfriends in burkas slapping down Centurions in Palo Alto boutiques by now. So what’s going on?
Technology companies always insist that they are merely platforms for distribution and not publishers. But Twitter, for example, sells advertising alongside the content it receives, stores and disseminates. It is difficult to imagine what more it needs to do before capitulating to the inevitable reality that it is a publisher and it must bear some responsibility for the content it hosts and spreads.
CloudFlare’s sins are arguably graver, since its chief executive, Matthew Prince, refuses, even when made aware of the deeply disturbing websites his technology keeps online, to distinguish between unpleasant opinions and vile, almost certainly illegal content.
As a content delivery network, the case could even be made that CloudFlare is republishing the material in question. The company could plausibly be accused of aiding and abetting terrorism by hosting multiple copies of terrorist material and serving it up to readers across the globe.
Of course, there are legal and cost considerations to such admissions. In most jurisdictions, if a publisher does any pre-moderation of content, it can be held responsible for everything it hosts. And the – comparatively – young and modestly funded Twitter would be horrified, I am sure, to be told it had to employ thousands of human agents to review and censor content on its network.
But something has to give. And it cannot be the security and liberty of innocent citizens, who are being injured and killed by terrorists using social media to spread their evil messages and organise their attacks.
“Inherently, there will be things on our network that make us uncomfortable,” says Matthew Prince. That’s perfectly fair, and true. But it’s a fair cry from defending the unarguably odious opinions of posters on Mumsnet to protecting and enabling some of the most dangerous people on the planet.
Surely even the sociopaths of Silicon Valley can tell the difference.