British MPs scream pointlessly (for now) at Silicon Valley patsies
It seems like I'm not the only Brit who's done with Silicon Valley.
Yesterday afternoon, members of the British Parliament's Home Affairs Committee asked representatives from Twitter, Facebook and Google to answer questions about the Valley giants' dismal response to the rise of hate speech and cyberbulling on their platforms.
The event was reported by the British press (and some of the Americans who cared) as a “grill”ing or a “slam”ing. The companies, Brits were told, were “ lashed by the powerful committee for not proactively searching for hateful speech, racism and other trolling.”
Certainly the mood wasn't civil. Committee chair Yvette Cooper told the execs “You all have a terrible reputation among users for dealing swiftly with problems in content even against your own community standards,” Labour MP David Winnick asked “Do you feel any shame at all about the things we have been referring to?” and David Winnick MP went further still...
"I must say I thought that when it came to the amount of money made - the millions of dollars, the thought that came to my mind, it's a form of commercial prostitution which you're engaged in. I think that is a good and apt description."
And who were the poor C-Suite titans who had to face such abuse?
Twitter sent along Nick Pickles, “head of public policy for the UK”, Google fielded Peter Barron, “Google Europe’s vice-president for communications and public affairs” and Facebook offered up Simon Milner, their “EMEA policy director.”
Oh no! Not Pickles, Barron, and Milner!
Have you ever heard of any of those people?
Could you pick them out of a line up?
Of course not. And that's the whole point: companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google might have people nominally in charge of their European or UK policy but nobody seriously believes that the real policy decisions on cyberbullying or hate speech or fake news are made anywhere that isn't served by Caltrain.
Pickles, Barron and Milner were the corporate equivalent of those stuffed dolls soldiers use for bayonet practice. They might have been wearing enemy uniforms and it might have done wonders for the MPs' morale to twist the blade, but let's not kid ourselves that the real villains – the Zuckerbergs, Dorseys and Pages – felt even the slightest twinge of discomfort.
As such, the assembled execs could barely hide their contempt for the lawmakers. According to the Guardian, Pickles “apologized to Cooper for not having looked at their community staff by the time of the hearing” and then “later declined to say how many staff it employed to work on safety and content moderation.”
Google's Barron brushed off the MPs' questions about why his company had refused to remove a David Duke hate speech video from YouTube, explaining that it“did not cross the line into hate speech even though it was shocking and offensive in its nature”
And so it continued, with the MPs growing increasingly mean and the executives growing increasingly bored and very little else being achieved.
And yet, and yet. Despite the lack of actual teeth, the fact that the committee was assembled at all shows a growing unease in the UK – traditionally a hugely friendly market to Valley tech giants – over the exact awfulness I described yesterday. At the same time as MPs were holding their committee session, GCHQ – the UK's equivalent of the NSA – took the unusual step of calling for Silicon Valley companies to do more to combat fake news. From the Guardian again...
Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook should be doing more to combat the emerging threat of fake news, a director of the government’s new National Cyber Security Centre has said.
Paul Chichester, the director for operations at the GCHQ-controlled body, said the companies must recognise their “social responsibility” and help tackle misinformation spread by state-backed groups.
Toothless committees aside, the increased volume from such a Valley-friendly country should be alarming for companies in the Valley. Just across the Channel, Germany's justice minister Heiko Maas also went on the attack: proposing 50m euro fines against social networks that failed to clamp down on hate posts. I've written before about Germany's growing role as European tech regulator, and how it has become one of the few countries that Facebook truly fears.
The last thing Facebook needs is the UK taking some lessons from its German cousins on how to cut Valley giants down to size.
Friendly or not, British MPs will only take so much brushing off, as Rupert Murdoch and his phone hacking minions will surely testify. Episodes like Facebook's reporting of a BBC journalist to the police for notifying them of inappropriate images of children don't do the company any PR favors in a country that's already cynical about American corporations.
Then there's the problem of Donald Trump. British sentiment of America and American power tends to ebb and flow depending on who sits in the White House. Under Clinton and Obama, the US could do no wrong, and American companies were buoyed along in the spirit of the “special relationship.” Under George W Bush, however, anti-Americanism spiked – and so did the population's anger at any hint of the Yanks throwing their weight about.
Dissing the BBC or brushing of MPs might have flown (just about) under Obama, but under Trump – in a country already in a nationalist vs pro-Europe froth post-Brexit and universally uneasy about an imminent Trump state visit... well, let's just say Facebook and co should probably stop pretending to humo(u)r the Mother of Parliaments lest those same MPs start backing up their hooker jibes with actual legislation.
For a company like Facebook that wants to become the first trillion dollar corporation, pissing off one major European nation is unfortunate, two would start to look suicidal.