Social media is “fantastic,” but it needs more control not only from the tech companies themselves but also from policymakers.
That was the message from London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who attended the South by Southwest conference last week, and it’s even gotten more attention given Facebook’s ongoing scandal with data company Cambridge Analytica.
The mayor, who assumed office in May 2016, is not naive to the power of technology. He was speaking at SXSW, after all, and prior to our interview his eyes were glued to his phone.
“Checking Twitter?” I asked casually while taking a seat and waiting for him to do the same. I had been briefed that the next day he would be reading aloud abusive and islamophobic tweets that have been tweeted at him.
Khan smiled at my question, but didn’t answer it. Later on, I learned that Khan has a love and appreciation for social media.
“Social media is fantastic. It’s a great way to get dates, fall in love, get out your soundtrack, music,” Khan said, “but actually it can also be used to spread hateful messages, commit criminal offenses, incite hatred, spread fake news, allegedly interfere with elections, and the tech companies have got to realize that’s a problem.”
Khan said he wants to see more action taken by politicians, like himself, and by the platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. His timeline is now.
“We’ve never had in history the scale and pace that we had now, and politicians and policymakers have not recognized that.”
“We’ve never had in history the scale and pace that we had now, and politicians and policymakers have not recognized that and subcontracted to the tech companies the duty to be responsible. I think it’s not worked out. There’s a need for there to be a greater duty of care from the tech companies and politicians to be more engaged,” Khan said.
But what should be done? For the tech companies, they should invest more in technology and in more human moderators to remove content that “crosses a line,” according to Khan.
“If you want to say something nasty about me, short of it being criminal or hateful, that’s fine, but some of that stuff crosses the line. There’s ways of using technology to design algorithms. You also should be employing staff. If you think something is dodgy, in relation to it being a criminal offense or inciting hatred, or somebody’s using social media to radicalize or indoctrinate somebody to become a terrorist or be involved in far-right groups, they should take action,” Khan said.
For governments, they can choose to legislate. Khan noted that Germany has instituted “very strict” legislation against hate speech.
“That’s one way of solving this. The other way is to talk to the tech companies,” Khan said.
Partnering with tech companies is a part of Khan’s agenda. In April 2017, Khan launched the Online Hate Crime Hub, BBC reported. The effort is funded by the Met and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and involves police, civil staff, and the social media companies themselves.
Khan stressed that the industry is growing fast. A favorite phrase of Khan said at that event, in our conversation, and later at his SXSW keynote is accepting “autonomous” technology, but not “autonomous mayors.”
“We’re surfing the wave of the tech revolution. We’re not scared of AI or automation or nanotechnology,” Khan said.
What about cryptocurrencies? When asked what he should be doing to address the rise of cryptocurrencies, Khan pointed to the recent words of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, who said authorities need to prevent criminal use.
“We can’t have our head in the sand and pretend it’s not taking place. Rather than it taking place without us, let’s get involved in the discussion and see some of the challenges and opportunities,” Khan said.
Of course, Khan isn’t friendly to every tech company. Ride-hailing giant Uber has had a long battle with the Transport of London. The city stripped Uber’s license to operate in September 2017. Uber appealed the decision, and its CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has been working to mend the relationship. But Uber still needs to play by the rules, according to Khan.
“As popular as Uber is, simply adding an app doesn’t exempt you from the regulations.”
“As popular as Uber is, simply adding an app doesn’t exempt you from the regulations that exist. The rules are there for everyone, no matter how big you are, no matter how many lawyers you employ or PR experts you employ. I’m a firm believer in having the rules apply to everyone. From the big boys, and yeah, they are all boys, as well as the small businesses as well,” Khan said.
“We’ll have to wait and see how this movie ends, but I think it’s a recognition from Uber that they’re going to play by the rules of the game,” he continued.
I asked him how he saw London as able to attract startups and tech companies post-Brexit. His answer began with facts and figures, matching key points from a Deloitte study on London: the capital already had 40 percent Europe’s headquarters of tech companies. The closet rival: “Paris, 8 percent,” Khan told me.
The reasons for London’s continued dominance? Talent, capital, and a “unique ecosystem,” according to Khan.
Khan said he’s committed to educating and providing for the future tech industry. Part of that, for Khan, is speaking openly about the next for inclusion. Our conversation happened shortly after he spoke at #BehindEveryGreatCity, a SXSW event on gender equality.
“We are the political cultural, and financial capital of the UK when it comes to music, arts, theaters, galleries, finance, regulation, it’s all in London,” Khan said. “But also we’re investing in the next generation.”