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Will 2020 be the year of reckoning for social media regulation?

In today’s world social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter play an increasingly important role in how users work, socialise and interact with each other. They also have the potential to improve people’s lives and can have a range of positive effects, like promoting self-expression, enhancing social connections and supporting learning.

In recent years however, several developments have placed the role of technology companies, including social media ones, increasingly high on the human rights agenda, with the United Nations also adopting the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. Lately, several high-profile cases such as the Schrems case and the Cambridge Analytica scandal have also reinforced concerns as to how they may interfere with human rights, the democratic processes and the biopower they can yield on our lives.

Against this backdrop, and, following the introduction of the GDPR, the European Commission is currently in the process of thrashing out the details of the Digital Services Act (DSA), a new framework due to be put forward this year, which will update the eCommerce Directive and establish new measures aimed to tackle platform governance, illegal content online and political advertising across platforms, as well as establishing an EU definition of hate speech. In this brief article I contend that it can also do a little more, particularly on social media where health concerns are being raised.

Last April, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office in UK (DCMS) authored and published the Online Harms White Paper describing concerns around designed addiction and excessive screen time used in online products. Most social media applications fall within the basket of online products and use algorithms and a tactic called “persuasive design”, to secretly hook users to content and online activity. This is not surprising when you consider that a large part of their revenue comes from selling adverts, which increases the longer they can keep people engaged. Such obfuscation designs and techniques, aside from keeping users hooked also increase the data they generate, sometimes with the user not knowing exactly how this might be harvested and used again by social media or other parties in their datafication process and possibly even in controlling their will and choices in everyday life .

This emerging challenge as described by the DCMS takes a more pervasive nature when we consider that in the past years there has been a proliferation of studies assessing how excessive social media use, (the longer we are hooked to social media) can potentially impact negatively on health. In one of these studies, with the title, “Social Networking Sites and Addiction: Ten Lessons Learned (published March 217)” Dr. Griffits and Dr Kuss associated social media use by some individuals with psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, loneliness, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and addiction. Other studies have also found that frequent social network users erroneously believe that other users are happier and more successful than they are, especially when they do not know them very well in real life, this in turn affects them psychologically.

Truth be told, even thou I came across a handful of papers and studies, yet, there is no clinical diagnosis for social media addiction and there are also studies as well as researchers like Oxford psychologist, Andrew Przybylski, who are sceptic about social media addiction. However to my mind it’s undeniable that at least at face value, the possible risk is tangible, in particular when you consider that at least two and a half billion people around the world regularly use social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and this number increases exponentially every day as more people gain access to the Internet. (Statista, 2018)

It is felt that the European Commission should also take note of the potential for these risks in  drafting the DSA and at this juncture, at least impose measures on social media, to be more transparent, and fair with their users and to have more social responsibility. It might be of interest to note that last year, Josh Hawley a Missouri  Republican unveiled the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Bill – “To prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice, to require social media companies to take measures to mitigate the risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation, and for other purposes.”

The proposed legislation might never make it to Law and may be perceived as unjustified, excessive and disproportionate. It labels all social media as addictive and imposes arbitrary measures on them without the conclusive research to back such measures. The Bill, however, has some interesting takes. One of these aims at enforcing transparency and requires social media companies to act fairly and make it easier for users to track the amount of time they spend on their platforms.

Another measure in the Bill forces an automatic limitation on the time users can spend on a platform across all devices to 30 minutes a day. Users would be able to change this every month. I can see the intent behind this clause albeit, in practice such a clause in my view might be arbitrary and impracticable. To my mind however, if one had to shift the measure on the user and empower the user to self-exclude himself like the in the gaming industry, this measure added to the transparency measure captioned before would be an empowering tool for the user. Self-exclusion in the gaming industry aims to limit access to gaming and marketing material for problem gamblers. The gaming industry takes a responsibility to provide a safe gaming environment and to assist in minimizing the negative impact on individuals displaying problem gambling behaviours whilst individuals must accept personal responsibility for limiting gambling behaviours to affordable levels. This could be a principle which is carried forward to social media platforms.

Some might dispute this provision as social media addiction, unlike gaming disorder, is not yet classified by the World Health Organisation in the International Classification of Diseases. I do not see any disproportionate or arbitrary effect in empowering the users and proactively cater for the potential risks listed before. The mentioned measures, along with more programmes for digital literacy and awareness of the effects of excessive social media use from social media companies and the other intended measures by the Commission for the DSA, would bolster social responsibility in this sector and could make 2020 the year of reckoning for social media regulation.

Article by Dr Ian Gauci.

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