London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called for social networks and sharing economy platforms to act for social good, rather than profit.
In a keynote speech at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, Khan laid some of the blame for increasing social division and nativist populism at the feet of technology companies. Social networks, he said, have empowered and amplified those who spread divisive ideas by turning a blind eye to their own influence and being slow to develop rapid takedown technologies.
The mayor read out some of the death threats and racial slurs he's received on Twitter to make his point, adding that such posts can isolate, divide and drive people away from social media or from engagement with real-world activities.
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"What we need to see is a stronger duty of care so that social media platforms can live up to their promise of being places that connect, unify and democratise the sharing of information and be places where everyone feels valued and welcome." If that duty of care is not exercised, he said social networks can expect harsh regulation like Germany's 24-hour takedown laws or the European Commission's one-hour deadline for removal of terror-related content.
Sharing economy companies, he added, have pursued market share at the expense of a fair wage and decent working conditions.
"Without prudent oversight this new way of working risks being used as cover to break up decades of hard won rights."
"Companies that behave in this way are not genuine peer-to-peer platforms", he said, "they are companies with an app."
"We can’t confuse matters by thinking that because a business is smart, disruptive, popular even - and has a really neat app – it somehow has a right to have a different regulatory status to its competitors.”
The mayor reserved his strongest comments for his political colleagues.
"There's been a dereliction of duty on the part of politicians and policymakers to ensure that the rapid growth in technology is utilised and steered in a direction that benefits us all," he said.
"Rather than blaming companies for innovating ahead of regulation, politicians must fix things when the regulation is out-of-date. The question now for governments - or traditional sectors - should not be how we slow down innovation in its tracks - because we can't. And we shouldn't. It should be how we mitigate against the potentially negative impacts of disruption. And - more than that - how we can harness the very same technologies to drive up standards and to create more just and equal societies."
Social networks know they have a problem: Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg has given himself a year to make his site more civil, while Twitter has created a project to measure "our contribution to the overall health of the public conversation".
Sharing economy companies have tried to point out the new economic activity they generate, with mixed success.
Clearly, these are debates that have a long way to run. ®