The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, took to the stage at the annual SXSW technology conference in Austin this week to deliver a powerful speech about the benefits – and concerns – that he has when it comes to the impact of technology companies on society.
In particular, Khan called on the social media giants – such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – to do more to remove hate speech and abuse online. He highlighted the point by reading out some disgraceful tweets that have been directed to him recently, most of which focus on the fact that Khan is Muslim.
European governments have been grappling with regulation of social media giants in recent years, particularly in the wake of how they have been used to influence elections and referendums, and with more and more abuse directed at minority groups. The tech giants recently told MPs in the UK how they are using new technologies and resources to remove harmful content, but politicians are concerned that not enough is being done.
Khan began his rousing speech by noting the impact that these technology companies are having on society as a whole. He said:
I’d like to talk today about one of our biggest shared challenges. That’s ensuring that the advancement of technology is for the benefit of everyone in society. In the US, the UK, other countries around the world, we are experiencing a period of historic change and uncertainty. This is affecting our politics, our economies and our societies.
There are some undeniable common threads. Growing groups of people, who feel left behind by de-industrialisation and globalisation. And the way technology has and still is profoundly changing our economies and way of life. The dominant characteristic is the unprecedented scale and pace of change, especially the change driven by technology.
How we deal with this transformation will be the defining challenge of the 21st Century. Because it cuts across so many layers of our society – politics, economics and the general wellbeing of modern citizens. The question now is not only how we utilise this new technology for the benefit of everyone in our society, how we use it to reduce inequality and maintain decent employment rights, just as significant is how we prevent harm to the social cohesion of our communities. And how we interact with one another.
Khan said that often governments and citizens rely on the principled judgments made by the innovators themselves, but said that the public also has a right to be heard and a right for democratic leaders to guide them. He added that this is something that has been “absent” in recent years”.
Khan expressed his belief that this technology revolution that we are going through is “different” to the ones that came before and is one that carries “far greater risks”. He said:
For today’s workers, there is a fear that these new technologies are bypassing the skills that they’ve spent a lifetime developing. And the social contract struck by the post-war generation on employment rights, rights that were hard won and decades in the making.
If managed poorly, and if tech sectors attempt to reap the rewards of their innovations without the care for their wider impact, I fear all this change risks an age of unprecedented change and division that undermines the key pillars and institutions of our society.
As noted above, one of the most poignant parts of Khan’s speech was when he began to read out half a dozen tweets that had been recently directed at him. Some of which can be seen below:
Deport all muslims and make london white again, all problems will be gone
— /mas/ (@MemAuSe) August 6, 2017
— Geralt (@warprivia) September 15, 2017
I say KILL the Mayor of London and you will be rid of ONE Muslim Terrorist?
— William Wallace (@billwall69) June 4, 2017
Hearing Khan read out these tweets was uncomfortable. But it made the point well – that online platforms cannot be a safe place for people to direct abuse as and when they wish. Khan – a former human rights lawyer – is an advocate of free speech, but these tweets are examples of ones that incite hate. Khan said:
Take social media. A handful of the largest global tech companies have managed to amass and enormous amount of power over how information is consumed. Understandably there are growing concerns about the way some of the biggest companies on the planet are impacting our lives and the overall wellbeing of our societies. In some cases, these new platforms have been used to exacerbate, fuel and deepen the divisions within our communities. The impact is and continues to be profound and should worry democracies around the world. We’ve already seen evidence of elections and referendums being influenced.
A rise in online abuse, misogyny and religious hatred. Fake news spreading misinformation. Algorithms blinkering us from different points of view and pushing people to extremes. And terrorists and far right groups using social media to not only conspire, but to radicalise and brainwash others. All of this is polarising us, rather than uniting us.
I don’t read this tweets out to be portrayed as a victim or ask for sympathy. But ask yourself this, what happens when young boys and girls from minority backgrounds see this kind of thing on their timelines? Or experience it themselves? And what about girls and women who are being driven from these platforms, reversing our long fight for gender equality? We simply must do more to protect people online.
Khan said that with the skills and resources that these social media companies have at their disposal, it should be possible for them to go “further and faster”. He called for a stronger duty of care, so that social media platforms live up to their promise of being places that “connect, unify and democratise” the sharing of information.
Khan warned that if this does not happen, governments may introduce ‘draconian’ legislation in an attempt to drive change. He highlighted Germany as an example, which has introduced hefty fines if social media firms don’t quickly remove hate speech or illegal material from their platforms.
However, Khan added that that the problem doesn’t just lie with the technology companies. He said that governments have been too slow to recognise the changes happening around them. Khan added:
I want to be clear, the onus for change should not just be on the tech companies and innovators. One of the problems is that over the past few years, politicians and governments have just been passive. Sitting on the hands, while the tech revolution has been happening around them. There has been a failure to ensure that our economies and regulatory structures are prepared and relevant.
It must ultimately fall to government, working with tech businesses and leaders, to ensure that this revolution is not detrimental to our long-term progress. There has been a dereliction of duty on the part of politicians and policy makers to ensure that the rapid growth in technology is utilised and steered in a direction that benefits us all.
Image credit - Image sourced via Sadiq Khan's Twitter