Regulating social media is one of the greatest challenges of our age, according to former British prime minister David Cameron, who added that the issue was shockingly ignored in a previous UK judicial inquiry.

In an interview on Sifted ahead of the annual GovTech summit in Paris this week, Cameron criticised a 2012 UK judicial public inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British press for largely ignoring social media.

He said that the inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, which took place while Cameron was in office, “implied that people take online content with a pinch of salt… That couldn’t be further from the truth”.

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“Not only do people listen to fake news; they build whole echo chambers out of it and never leave. And just as technology changes, regulations have to evolve.”

He added that it was “shocking really” that the Leveson report had “just a few paragraphs devoted to what has become one of the biggest challenges of our age”. 

The criticism comes as the UK government this year proposed to create an independent regulator with powers to fine social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter for harmful content.

It has been a long time coming. The UK like many countries in Europe has been struggling for years to work out how to regulate social media, notably when it comes to fake news, hate speech and harassment.

At the moment big social media companies such as YouTube and Facebook are still largely self-governing, with their own rules for how users are expected to behave.

This is starting to shift, however. 

In Germany a law came into force at the beginning of 2018 that effectively compelled large tech companies to review complaints about content they are hosting and remove anything that is clearly illegal within 24 hours.

Article 13 of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) puts the responsibility on platforms to make sure that copyright-infringing content is not hosted on their sites.

Earlier this year former UK culture secretary Jeremy Wright declared that “the era of self-regulation for online companies is over”.

In the US regulating social media has become a major political issue ahead of the 2020 election following a series of scandals, including Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Twitter refusing to ban white supremacist accounts.

Cameron commissioned the Leveson inquiry back in 2011 after a series of scandals in which journalists intruded into the privacy of celebrities and victims of crime. This year proposals to launch a fresh inquiry were voted down by the UK parliament.

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Brian Cathcart
Brian Cathcart

Mr Cameron participated in drafting the Leveson terms of reference so he should know that the remit of part one of the inquiry (2011-12) exclusively related to the press. The judge was thus not permitted to discuss regulation of social media. Online and social media fell within the remit of part two. Sadly Mr Cameron delayed part two, and his party, by then under Theresa May, cancelled it. If we are short of tools to tackle fake news, Mr Cameron and his party bear far more responsibility than Sir Brian Leveson.