In Depth

Cairncross Review: can Google and Facebook news be regulated?

Government probe urges tech firms to push users towards more reliable sources

Tech giants Google and Facebook should do more to help people identify fake news and steer them towards more credible sources, a Government report has urged. 

The Cairncross Review, an audit into the sustainability of quality reporting led by Dame Frances Cairncross, a former economic journalist, says that websites collating and promoting news have a responsibility to assess the authenticity of sources and “nudge people towards reading news of high quality.”

The review says that measures should be taken to incentivise “the provision and consumption of public-interest news” in a bid to improve the public’s perception of the media and their engagement with political matters, The Sun reports.

Since the US presidential elections in 2016, tech firms have been under fire from government bodies, with critics accusing them of spreading “fake news”. The spread of inaccurate news stories on social media was partly attributed to Donald Trump winning the election, The Daily Telegraph says. 

While some tech firms, notably Facebook, are attempting to combat the rise of fake news, social media users are still shown news stories that they’re likely to agree with, the newspaper says.

In an interview with the BBC, Cairncross said the report had suggested a number of different ways in which technology companies could “behave differently and could be made to behave differently.” In most cases no immediate legislation would be required, she said.

Cairncross warned that “draconian and risky” legislation could force tech companies to withdraw their news platforms altogether. 

How could tech giants be regulated?

The review says that Google, Facebook and other major players should be placed “under regulatory scrutiny” as the task of filtering out unreliable news sources is “too important to leave entirely to the judgment of commercial entities.”

But forcing tech companies to vet every story shared on their online platforms would be a step “too far”, iNews reports. 

The report rejected the idea of giving tech giants the same obligations as news publishers. This means they would not have “legal liability for sharing false stories”, the news site adds. 

Instead, a new regulator could be used to oversee the relationship between publishers and tech giants, which draw much of their advertising revenue from news outlets, The Guardian says. 

There are also plans to force tech companies to provide publishers with “early warnings” about any major changes to news gathering algorithms which dictate the order of search results, the Daily Mail says.

How have journalists reacted?

The report has been welcomed by the Society of Editors, a group of journalists campaigning for media freedom, though it warns that “government-imposed regulation” could do more harm than good, The Sun reports. 

Ian Murray, the society’s executive director, said he found it “extremely gratifying” that the review “underscored the need to protect and indeed reinvigorate the reporting of local democracy and open justice.” 

But he also said that the UK press had not fought “long and hard” to maintain its independence and freedom to then find itself regulated by state-appointed bodies, “no matter how well meaning was their original creation.”

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