Regulating the Web through decentralisation

30th of October 2018 – The adoption of the Copyright Directive and the recent debates about "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 to "strengthen the fight against racism and antisemitism on the Internet", ordered by the Prime minister and published last month, explains this very clearly. It denounces "a perverted connection between hate speech and advertising: people who write offensive or extremist messages are the ‘money makers’, because one of them can cause fifty or a hundred more. 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 platforms". This is the same analysis we developed 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 (this can be done to a certain extent, which we will discuss later). But this 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 host and broadcast content created by the audience on the Internet) are under heavy obligations. If "manifestly illegal" content is reported to such a provider, they must act "expeditiously" to remove the information, otherwise they 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 to our Peertube streaming service). 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.

Distinguishing the hosting providers from the Web Giants and relieving 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.

Second, these hosting providers, who do not benefit from putting forward a content, will no longer have to assess content to decide if it is "manifestly illegal" or not. Only a judge can have the power to require measures of censorship.

The virtuous cycle of decentralised regulation

Allowing the development of a multitude of small hosting providers gives hope for an efficient self-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 chooses the website or platform that suits their needs and desires. This freedom of choice is strengthened by the development of decentralized social networking protocols, such as 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 themselves 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 platforms. They will be able to refocus on the most serious offenses.

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