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Regulating the Web through decentralisation

30th of October 2018 - The adoption of the Copyright Directive and the recent debates about the "Fake News" have been an introduction to the more general discussion about the regulation of the Internet, which will be held (FR) this year. Today, La Quadrature du Net submits some practical proposals.

The French Government wants (FR) the major social networks to stop promoting the dissemination of "hate and extremist speech". Why not.

The French report (FR) aiming at "strenghtening the fight against racism and antisemitism on the Internet", ordered by the Prime minister and published last month, explains it very clearly. It denounces "a perverted connection between hate speech and advertising: people who write offensive or extremist remarks are the "money makers", because one of them can cause fifty or a hundred others. From this perspective, it is valuable for these networks to host and disseminate this kind of speech".

More generally, the report regrets "the rule according to which an offensive remark will generate more "buzz" than a consensual one, fueling the economic model of these plateforms". This is the same analysis that we developped to explain why Google (FR) or Facebook (FR) must be fought.

To neutralize this rule which would make hate speech lucrative, the government wants to reinforce the obligations imposed on these platforms: more transparency and vigilance duty. Why not (it can be done to a certain extent, we will discuss it later). Butthis solution will never be sufficient enough to counter the abuses caused by the profitability of hate speech. And it is unrealistic to think, as the report does, that we could solve this issue with a judge behind every defamation or insult written on the Internet. There are way too many of them.

If we want to truly address this problem, we must question the whole idea of the attention economy. To do so, we need to seek and promote healthy alternatives to the GAFAM.

The existing law is advantageous for the Web Giants

For 15 years, the law has restrained the development of these alternatives. Every hosting providers (those who keep and broadcast content created by the audience on the Internet) are under heavy obligations. If a "manifestly illegal" content is reported to such a provider, it must act "expeditiously" to remove the information, otherwise one can be held responsible for it1.

In practice, we - La Quadrature du Net - thought about becoming a hosting provider for videos (allowing everyone to upload videos on our streaming service Peertube). It would have been a way to take part in an alternative to Youtube, that does not make profit out of hate speech or mass surveillance. But we had to give up. There are not enough legal experts in our team to evaluate which videos would be "manifestly illegal". We do not have the resources to pay the fines. Youtube remains unchallenged.

Distinguish the hosting providers from the Web Giants and relieve them from their heavy obligations

If the government wants to fight against the dissemination of hate speech, the existing law must change to facilitate the development of alternatives to the attention economy. Here is our proposal.

First, hosting providers must not be placed under the same obligations than the Web giants who control and regulate information for their benefit.

Secondly, these hosting providers, that do not benefit from puting forward a content, will no longer have to assess a content to decide if it is "manifestly illegal" or not. Only a judge can have the power to require a censorship measure.

The virtuous cycle of decentralised regulation

Allowing the development of a multitude of small hosting providers gives hope for an efficient auto-regulation, in the hands of the whole population.

In the legal framework, each hosting provider decides of its own rules of moderation, more or less strict, and each person choses the website or plateform that suits its needs and desires. This freedom of choice is strenghten by the development of decentralized social networking protocol, like ActivityPub, published in January 2018 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, who created the standards of the Web) and already being implemented by Mastodon (an alternative to Twitter) or Peertube. These standards will allow an infinity of hosting providers to communicate with each other, according to their own rules. It will also allow each person to move freely to one provider to another, from one set of rules to another (and Web giants are doing everything they can to prevent such a possibility).

Each person will choose whether to expose himself to a conflict or not, and each provider will moderate its community at a human scale. This type of structure gives hope for a significant decrease of unwanted inter-personal conflicts on the Internet. National courts will no longer be overtaken by the too many conflicts that are disseminated through giant plateforms. They will be able to refocus on the most serious offences.

If the government wants to regulate the Web, he must not limit itself to impose more obligations on the Web giants. To provide an in-depth reform, the government has to be constructive and encourage the development of the decentralised regulation.

  • 1. This rule is from the article 6 of the LCEN (FR) in 2004, which transposes article 14 of the directive on e-commerce.
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