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BLOGViewpoint: The case against social media regulation

by Randall CraigFiled in: Blog, Make It Happen Tipsheet, Media, Social Media, ViewpointTagged as: ,

Should social media be regulated and controlled? Should hardware and network providers be forced to open a one-way window for authorities to monitor the flow of conversation? These questions are once again being asked, as supposedly “civilized” societies erupt into violence, riots, vandalism, and hooliganism.

In these cases, rioters changed the marketing concept of a flash-mob – a seemingly spontaneous song and dance event – into a crash mob – something more sinister.  Social media was used by the rioters to pinpoint where and when a new area was to be targeted – and sadly, people responded.

Note that I am not conflating two very different groups: those who are in a non-violent march, and rioters who burn businesses and vandalize public property.

Beyond the argument for public order, proponents of regulation point out that governments already scan all phone and email conversations for issues of public safety and security. And in the private sector, emails are routinely scanned as well. Scanning encrypted Smartphone messages using a back door is merely putting this platform at parity with the others.

Notwithstanding these points, there are a number of arguments that suggest regulation and control are inappropriate, and ultimately unnecessary:

  1. Social Media for the good argument:  The Arab Spring took root through social media, and was so effective at organizing the grassroots that the despotic governments shut it down. Providing a back door that governments can monitor, takes away a primary way for ordinary citizens to assert their right to free speech.  Social media empowers for good as well as for bad, but it doesn’t do anything unless a person actually uses it. Sadly, the gun lobby’s argument rings true here as well: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. It’s how a tool is used that determines if it is good or bad.
  2. Essential freedoms argument: Most jurisdictions recognize people’s rights of free speech and privacy. By regulating this one channel of communication, we begin a slippery slope to a society that doesn’t value – or protect – any freedoms.
  3. Accountability argument: People should be held accountable for their specific actions using evidence that is lawfully obtained, without trampling the rights of the majority. In London there are 1000’s of video cameras that can be used to identify suspects. By questioning the suspects and examining their smartphones, police can work backwards to identify the organizers.
  4. Crowd-sourced justice argument:  At the same time that the bad guys were using their Smartphones to organize, many bystanders were using their Smartphones to post pictures and videos online.  In the UK, the London police force had set up a web site of pictures and videos (no longer online), asking the public for help. More than anything else, these countervailing activities will reduce – or eliminate – the effectiveness of using social media for bad.  No longer is it possible to hide when Google, Facebook, and YouTube see all.  (As an aside, the issue of trial-by-crowd vs trial-by-court is a big one: what happens if the wrong person is “identified” as a perpetrator from a grainy Facebook photo?  The traditional justice system may catch this, but trial-by-crowd can forever destroy a reputation.)

Quite separately, beyond all of these arguments, is the countervailing argument about whether the social platforms themselves should be subject to more stringent legislation, specifically in the area of privacy, data ownership, the use of the platforms for political manipulation, and “fake news”.  A strong argument can be made on all of these fronts, and we’re beginning to see the stirrings of change.

I am not advocating the use of Social Media for unlawful activity, and believe fundamentally that anyone who breaks the law should be prosecuted to the full extent of that law.  And those who use questionable business practices should be exposed and suffer commercial loss.  But restricting  – and losing – freedom of expression  exclusively in one communication channel is inappropriate, and because of crowd-sourced justice, unnecessary.


The debate over regulation of these platforms, particularly with respect to privacy and data access, will likely affect everyone who uses them.  This week, review your own organization’s approach in this area, beyond what is required through legislation (CCPA, GDPR, CASL, etc), and ask whether you can do even better.

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