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UK names its pick for social media ‘harms’ watchdog

The UK government has taken the next step in its grand policymaking challenge to tame the worst excesses of social media by regulating a broad range of online harms — naming the existing communications watchdog, Ofcom, as its preferred pick for enforcing rules around ‘harmful speech’ on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in future.

Last April the previous Conservative-led government laid out populist but controversial proposals to legislate to lay a duty of care on Internet platforms — responding to growing public concern about the types of content kids are being exposed to online.

Its white paper covers a broad range of online content — from terrorism, violence and hate speech, to child exploitation, self-harm/suicide, cyber bullying, disinformation and age-inappropriate material — with the government setting out a plan to require platforms to take “reasonable” steps to protect their users from a range of harms.

However digital and civil rights campaigners warn the plan will have a huge impact on online speech and privacy, arguing it will put a legal requirement on platforms to closely monitor all users and apply speech-chilling filtering technologies on uploads in order to comply with very broadly defined concepts of harm — dubbing it state censorship. Legal experts are also critical.

The (now) Conservative majority government has nonetheless said it remains committed to the legislation.

Today it responded to some of the concerns being raised about the plan’s impact on freedom of expression, publishing a partial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper, although a draft bill remains pending, with no timeline confirmed.

“Safeguards for freedom of expression have been built in throughout the framework,” the government writes in an executive summary. “Rather than requiring the removal of specific pieces of legal content, regulation will focus on the wider systems and processes that platforms have in place to deal with online harms, while maintaining a proportionate and risk-based approach.”

It says it’s planning to set a different bar for content deemed illegal vs content that has “potential to cause harm”, with the heaviest content removal requirements being planned for terrorist and child sexual exploitation content. Whereas companies will not be forced to remove “specific pieces of legal content”, as the government puts it.

Ofcom, as the online harms regulator, will also not be investigating or adjudicating on “individual complaints”.

“The new regulatory framework will instead require companies, where relevant, to explicitly state what content and behaviour they deem to be acceptable on their sites and enforce this consistently and transparently. All companies in scope will need to ensure a higher level of protection for children, and take reasonable steps to protect them from inappropriate or harmful content,” it writes.

“Companies will be able to decide what type of legal content or behaviour is acceptable on their services, but must take reasonable steps to protect children from harm. They will need to set this out in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently. The proposed approach will improve transparency for users about which content is and is not acceptable on different platforms, and will enhance users’ ability to challenge removal of content where this occurs.”

Another requirement will be that companies have “effective and proportionate user redress mechanisms” — enabling users to report harmful content and challenge content takedown “where necessary”.

“This will give users clearer, more effective and more accessible avenues to question content takedown, which is an important safeguard for the right to freedom of expression,” the government suggests, adding that: “These processes will need to be transparent, in line with terms and conditions, and consistently applied.”

Ministers say they have not yet made a decision on what kind of liability senior management of covered businesses may face under the planned law, nor on additional business disruption measures — with the government saying it will set out its final policy position in the Spring.

“We recognise the importance of the regulator having a range of enforcement powers that it uses in a fair, proportionate and transparent way. It is equally essential that company executives are sufficiently incentivised to take online safety seriously and that the regulator can take action when they fail to do so,” it writes.

It’s also not clear how businesses will be assessed as being in (or out of) scope of the regulation.

“Just because a business has a social media page that does not bring it in scope of regulation,” the government response notes. “To be in scope, a business would have to operate its own website with the functionality to enable sharing of user-generated content, or user interactions. We will introduce this legislation proportionately, minimising the regulatory burden on small businesses. Most small businesses where there is a lower risk of harm occurring will not have to make disproportionately burdensome changes to their service to be compliant with the proposed regulation.”

The government is clear in the response that Online harms remains “a key legislative priority”.

“We have a comprehensive programme of work planned to ensure that we keep momentum until legislation is introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows,” it writes, describing today’s response report “an iterative step as we consider how best to approach this complex and important issue” — and adding: “We will continue to engage closely with industry and civil society as we finalise the remaining policy.”

Incoming in the meanwhile the government says it’s working on a package of measures “to ensure progress now on online safety” — including interim codes of practice, including guidance for companies on tackling terrorist and child sexual abuse and exploitation content online; an annual government transparency report, which it says it will publish “in the next few months”; and a media literacy strategy, to support public awareness of online security and privacy.

It adds that it expects social media platforms to “take action now to tackle harmful content or activity on their services” — ahead of the more formal requirements coming in.

Facebook-owned Instagram has come in for high level pressure from ministers over how it handles content promoting self-harm and suicide after the media picked up on a campaign by the family of a schoolgirl who killed herself after been exposed to Instagram content encouraging self-harm.

Instagram subsequently announced changes to its policies for handling content that encourages or depicts self harm/suicide — saying it would limit how it could be accessed. This later morphed into a ban on some of this content.

The government said today that companies offering online services that involve user generated content or user interactions are expected to make use of what it dubs “a proportionate range of tools” — including age assurance, and age verification technologies — to prevent kids from accessing age-inappropriate content and “protect them from other harms”.

This is also the piece of the planned legislation intended to pick up the baton of the Digital Economy Act’s porn block proposals — which the government dropped last year, saying it would bake equivalent measures into the forthcoming Online Harms legislation.

The Home Office has been consulting with social media companies on devising robust age verification technologies for many months.

In its own response statement today, Ofcom — which would be responsible for policy detail under the current proposals — said it will work with the government to ensure “any regulation provides effective protection for people online”, and, pending appointment, “consider what we can do before legislation is passed”.

The Online Harms plan is not the online Internet-related work ongoing in Whitehall, with ministers noting that: “Work on electoral integrity and related online transparency issues is being taken forward as part of the Defending Democracy programme together with the Cabinet Office.”

Back in 2018 a UK parliamentary committee called for a levy on social media platforms to fund digital literacy programs to combat online disinformation and defend democratic processes, during an enquiry into the use of social media for digital campaigning. However the UK government has been slower to act on this front.

The former chair of the DCMS committee, Damian Collins, called today for any future social media regulator to have “real powers in law” — including the ability to “investigate and apply sanctions to companies which fail to meet their obligations”.

In the DCMS committee’s final report parliamentarians called for Facebook’s business to be investigated, raising competition and privacy concerns.

Canal+ acquires Nollywood studio ROK from IROKOtv to grow African film

French television company Canal+ has acquired the ROK film studio from VOD company IROKOtv for an undisclosed amount.

Founded by Jason Njoku in 2010—and backed by $45 million  in VC—IROKOtv boasts the largest online catalog of Nollywood film content in the world.

Nollywood is a movie genre popularized in Nigeria that has become Africa’s de facto film industry and one of the largest globally, by production volume.

Based in Lagos, ROK film studios was incubated to create original content for IROKOtv, which can be accessed online anywhere in the world.

Actress and producer Mary Njoku—IROKOtv CEO Jason Njoku’s wife—founded ROK studios and will stay on as Director General under the Canal+ acquisition.

Owned by media conglomerate Vivendi, Canal+ looks to give Mary more production resources, without disrupting ROK’s creative chemistry.

“We are acquiring the talent of Mary,” Canal+ Chief Content Officer Fabrice Faux told TechCrunch on a call.

“We will provide administrative support, finance, and equipment, but otherwise it is our intention to give Mary maximum autonomy and creative freedom,” he said.

Mrs. Njoku’s creative work so far has led ROK to produce over 540 movies and 25 original TV series, according to company data.

Mary Njoku ROK IrokotvThrough ROK, Njoku has expanded Nollywood’s formula for producing films on low budgets, largely shot on location in Nigeria, that connect with African audiences wherever they are. One of ROK’s more recent popular productions is Ojukwu, a period series set in an 1800s Nigerian village, in which Njoku directs and acts.

“Nollywood is Africa…We tell the African story. You can bring a Nigerian story, a Ghanaian story, a South African story…we talk the same drama. So Africans can connect to the average Nollywood story anywhere in the world,” Njoku told TechCrunch.

With the ROK acquisition, Canal+ looks to bring the Nollywood production ethos to other countries and regions of Africa.

Ojukwu ROK IROKOtv“It’s not that easy to produce an interesting movie for $20,000. People in Nigeria, particularly Mary and IROKO, know how to do that,” said Faux from Canal+.

“We want her to bring that to French speaking Africa. Because we need more African content and we need the industry to develop in French speaking Africa.”

Faux would not divulge the acquisition price but confirmed there is a cash component of the deal. “This is key for Jason…to developing the VOD aspects of IROKO,” he said.

Under the deal, ROK will continue to create unique content for IROKOtv, ROK’s four existing channels—three on DSTV and ROK Sky in the UK—as well as Canal+’s Africa and global channels.

The ability to reach a larger network of African consumers on the continent and internationally is another acquisition play for Canal+. Nollywood online content has proven the ability to find demand anywhere Africans are, including diaspora populations abroad. IROKOtv’s top-three streaming countries are Nigeria, the US, and the UK, according to a company spokesperson.

“We’ll now be able to do things in English speaking and French speaking African markets…and gain access to an advertising market where we believe there’s huge potential for growth,” said Faux.

The ROK acquisition is not the Canal+ Group’s first collaboration with IROKOtv. The media company joined a $19 million Series E investment in 2016, that also saw Canal+ and IROKO launch a French VOD channel. This was shortly after Netflix announced it would go live in Africa, though with little original African content. Netflix has since started to commission film content from Nigeria.

VOD tech startups, such as IROKOtv, have worked to take African film online, where it can be better distributed and monetized. That’s become less of a hard road, given the continent’s improving mobile and internet penetration paired with better bandwidth and falling data costs. There has been some attribution and loss. In 2017, Y-Combinator-backed French language VOD startup Afrostream, which had raised over $100 million in VC, shuttered—ending subscription services in 24 African and 5 European countries.

Canal+ and ROK are open to producing content for other VOD and production outlets, according to Njoku and Faux. “We could [for Netflix], or we could create a production corner on another VOD service,” said Faux.

On the possibility of pursuing an African film with crossover appeal to non-African audiences—particularly in the wake Black Panther’s success—ROK CEO Mary Njoku did not rule it out.

“I have been tempted in the past and am tempted today, but I want to focus on making the channels we have now the best Nollywood channels out there,” she said.

 

 

UK Internet attitudes study finds public support for social media regulation

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has published a new joint report and stat-fest on Internet attitudes and usage with the national data protection watchdog, the ICO — a quantitative study to be published annually which they’re calling the Online Nation report.

The new structure hints at the direction of travel for online regulation in the UK, following government plans set out in a recent whitepaper to regulate online harms — which will include creating a new independent regulator to ensure Internet companies meet their responsibilities.

Ministers are still consulting on whether this should be a new or existing body. But both Ofcom and the ICO have relevant interests in being involved — so it’s fitting to see joint working going into this report.

As most of us spend more time than ever online, we’re increasingly worried about harmful content — and also more likely to come across it,” writes Yih-Choung Teh, group director of strategy and research at Ofcom, in a statement. “ For most people, those risks are still outweighed by the huge benefits of the internet. And while most internet users favour tighter rules in some areas, particularly social media, people also recognise the importance of protecting free speech – which is one of the internet’s great strengths.”

While it’s not yet clear exactly what form the UK’s future Internet regulator will take, the Online Nation report does suggest a flavor of the planned focus.

The report, which is based on responses from 2,057 adult internet users and 1,001 children, flags as a top-line finding that eight in ten adults have concerns about some aspects of Internet use and further suggests the proportion of adults concerned about going online has risen from 59% to 78% since last year (though its small-print notes this result is not directly comparable with last year’s survey so “can only be interpreted as indicative”).

Another stat being highlighted is a finding that 61% of adults have had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year — rising to 79% among children (aged 12-15). (Albeit with the caveat that it’s using a “broad definition”, with experiences ranging from “mildly annoying to seriously harmful”.)

While a full 83% of polled adults are found to have expressed concern about harms to children on the Internet.

The UK government, meanwhile, has made child safety a key focus of its push to regulate online content.

At the same time the report found that most adults (59%) agree that the benefits of going online outweigh the risks, and 61% of children think the internet makes their lives better.

While Ofcom’s annual Internet reports of years past often had a fairly dry flavor, tracking usage such as time spent online on different devices and particular services, the new joint study puts more of an emphasis on attitudes to online content and how people understand (or don’t) the commercial workings of the Internet — delving into more nuanced questions, such as by asking web users whether they understand how and why their data is collected, and assessing their understanding of ad-supported business models, as well as registering relative trust in different online services’ use of personal data.

The report also assesses public support for Internet regulation — and on that front it suggests there is increased support for greater online regulation in a range of areas. Specifically it found that most adults favour tighter rules for social media sites (70% in 2019, up from 52% in 2018); video-sharing sites (64% v. 46%); and instant-messaging services (61% v. 40%).

At the same time it says nearly half (47%) of adult internet users expressed recognition that websites and social media platforms play an important role in supporting free speech — “even where some people might find content offensive”. So the subtext there is that future regulation of harmful Internet content needs to strike the right balance.

On managing personal data, the report found most Internet users (74%) say they feel confident to do so. A majority of UK adults are also happy for companies to collect their information under certain conditions — vs over a third (39%) saying they are not happy for companies to collect and use their personal information.

Those conditions look to be key, though — with only small minorities reporting they are happy for their personal data to be used to program content (17% of adult Internet users were okay with this); and to target them with ads (only 18% didn’t mind that, so most do).

Trust in online services to protect user data and/or use it responsibly also varies significantly, per the report findings — with social media definitely in the dog house on that front. “Among ten leading UK sites, trust among users of these services was highest for BBC News (67%) and Amazon (66%) and lowest for Facebook (31%) and YouTube (34%),” the report notes.

Despite low privacy trust in tech giants, more than a third (35%) of the total time spent online in the UK is on sites owned by Google or Facebook.

“This reflects the primacy of video and social media in people’s online consumption, particularly on smartphones,” it writes. “Around nine in ten internet users visit YouTube every month, spending an average of 27 minutes a day on the site. A similar number visit Facebook, spending an average of 23 minutes a day there.”

And while the report records relatively high awareness that personal data collection is happening online — finding that 71% of adults were aware of cookies being used to collect information through websites they’re browsing (falling to 60% for social media accounts; and 49% for smartphone apps) — most (69%) also reported accepting terms and conditions without reading them.

So, again, mainstream public awareness of how personal data is being used looks questionable.

The report also flags limited understanding of how search engines are funded — despite the bald fact that around half of UK online advertising revenue comes from paid-for search (£6.7BN in 2018). “[T]here is still widespread lack of understanding about how search engines are funded,” it writes. “Fifty-four per cent of adult internet users correctly said they are funded by advertising, with 18% giving an incorrect response and 28% saying they did not know.”

The report also highlights the disconnect between time spent online and digital ad revenue generated by the adtech duopoly, Google and Facebook — which it says together generated an estimated 61% of UK online advertising revenue in 2018; a share of revenue that it points out is far greater than time spent (35%) on their websites (even as those websites are the most visited by adults in the UK).

As in previous years of Ofcom ‘state of the Internet’ reports, the Online Nation study also found that Facebook use still dominates the social media landscape in the UK.

Though use of the eponymous service continues falling (from 95% of social media users in 2016 to 88% in 2018). Even as use of other Facebook-owned social properties — Instagram and WhatsApp — grew over the same period.


The report also recorded an increase in people using multiple social services — with just a fifth of social media users only using Facebook in 2018 (down from 32% in 2018). Though as noted above, Facebook still dominates time spent, clocking up way more time (~23 minutes) per user per day on average vs Snapchat (around nine minutes) and Instagram (five minutes).  

A large majority (74%) of Facebook users also still check it at least once a day.

Overall, the report found that Brits have a varied online diet, though — on average spending a minute or more each day on 15 different internet sites and apps. Even as online ad revenues are not so equally distributed.

“Sites and apps that were not among the top 40 sites ranked by time spent accounted for 43% of average daily consumption,” the report notes. “Just over one in five internet users said that in the past month they had used ‘lots of websites or apps they’ve used before’ while a third (36%) said they ‘only use websites or apps they’ve used before’.”

There is also variety when it comes to how Brits search for stuff online, and while 97% of adult internet users still use search engines the report found a variety of other services also in the mix. 

It found that nearly two-thirds of people (65%) go more often to specific sites to find specific things, such as a news site for news stories or a video site for videos; while 30% of respondents said they used to have a search engine as their home page but no longer do.

The high proportion of searches being registered on shopping websites/apps (61%) also looks interesting in light of the 2017 EU antitrust ruling against Google Shopping — when the European Commission found Google had demoted rival shopping comparison services in search results, while promoting its own, thereby undermining rivals’ ability to gain traffic and brand recognition.

The report findings also indicate that use of voice-based search interfaces remains relatively low in the UK, with just 10% using voice assistants on a mobile phone — and even smaller percentages tapping into smart speakers (7%) or voice AIs on connected TVs (3%).

In another finding, the report suggests recommendation engines play a major part in content discovery.

“Recommendation engines are a key way for platforms to help people discover content and products — 70% of viewing to YouTube is reportedly driven by recommendations, while 35% of what consumers purchase on Amazon comes from recommendations,” it writes. 

In overarching aggregate, the report says UK adults now spend the equivalent of almost 50 days online per year.

While, each week, 44 million Brits use the internet to send or receive email; 29 million send instant messages; 30 million bank or pay bills via the internet; 27 million shop online; and 21 million people download information for work, school or university.

The full report can be found here.