Are Social Media Platforms Publishers?

We all have something to say and social media provides a platform from which we can speak. Platforms amplify speech. Social media platforms allow individuals to publish whatever they choose, generally without censorship, or editorial interference. They are a useful and cheap way to communicate to the world at large. They are also an environmentally friendly way to communicate.

There is a long tradition of people wanting to communicate; centuries ago some published pamphlets; others wrote books. These communications could only reach a mass audience because of the invention of the printing press. Today even the President of the United States of America frequently communicates through twitter.

Most nations have laws which prevent, or seek to prevent, the dissemination of material which is defamatory or severely pornographic or which induces hatred or which espouses violence in some form or other. If such material were printed in a newspaper or in a book the publisher would face the same legal sanctions as the author. However, if such material is communicated on a social media platform the social media company faces no legal sanction. It may, if the material is drawn to its attention, take it off the platform, but the internet is a complex beast and once something is published on it, the material usually stays on it, somewhere or other.

Governments are now looking to see how such material can be regulated on the internet. One way is to make the platform liable in the same way that traditional publishers are responsible for their publications equally with the author. However the sheer volume of material put on to social media is a problem. Perhaps social media companies could spend much more of their vast resources policing their own platforms, but they are loathe to do this voluntarily. Germany has enacted laws which require a stringent policing by social media companies, so I am sure that this could be done in other jurisdictions.

We do not want to get to a state where platforms are censoring what people put on social media. There are many opinions which I personally find extremely offensive and disgraceful, but I do not want to prevent people expressing their ideas. The expression of an idea is the right of everyone in the world; free speech, however, is limited to the expression of ideas: hatred, propaganda (now fashionably called fake news) instructions to build bombs and encouragement to violence are not ideas.

 

Pensions and Carillion

The sudden (and in some quarters) expect collapse of Carillion has left many people who thought that they had a pension of a certain amount from the conglomerate finding that their pensions will be significantly less than they expected. It is astonishing that the law seems to permit companies to ignore their pension obligations and give priority to the payment of dividends over their legal obligation to make payments into their own pension funds. Pensions are wages, in reality, deferred wages, and I cannot understand a position where Carillion’s pension funds are in deficit, and apparently have been in deficit for many years, while dividends have been continuously paid to shareholders.

After all, when a person works for a company and it is a term of the employment that the person will get a pension based on final salary or average earnings, what is really happening is that the employee works for lower wages on the basis that he or she will get the agreed pension.

Pension fund deficits seem to be widespread among many large companies.  It is hard to understand how auditors manage to give such companies a clean bill of health. In Carillion’s case it seems that the pension trustee warned that there was a shortfall of around £990 million in the fund. Collectively the Pension Protection Fund’s review of pensions showed that although there were 1,878 schemes in surplus, there were more than double that amount in deficit, and that in the aggregate the deficit was more than £100 billion.

The funds that the pension funds maintain do fluctuate, usually as the stock market fluctuates and as fixed interest investments change. I can understand that fluctuations must be taken into account and over several years you would expect some fluctuation with the company having to put more money in, or if it has put in too much, having a contribution holiday until things were smoothed out. I cannot understand how it is that funds can be in substantial deficit for ten years. Perhaps some regulator is not doing its job properly.

If the pension fund is in deficit, the Pension Protection Fund steps in to help in a limited way. Not all of the pension is covered by the PPF and this means not only does the pensioner not get his or her full pension but also the taxpayer loses the income tax on that part of the pension that is lost.

There needs to be a fix. I would suggest that there should be a more transparent treatment of pension obligations in companies’ accounts and further that companies should not be permitted to pay dividends while pension funds are in substantial long term deficit. This rule will, I am told, deter investment in companies whose pension funds are in deficit, but would that be a bad thing? Should investors be able to reap dividends from companies who do not pay their pension contributions?

We live in Interesting Times

The nations of the world are set on growing their economies. It is, they think, the best way to increase prosperity and reduce their debts. Certainly it will increase material prosperity, if growth can be achieved but at the cost of the environment. We live in the environment and as our economies grow and nations become materially wealthier so our the places where their peoples live become more malignant.

What does it profit humanity to gain the whole world if humanity then has no place to live?

Merry Christmas

Very Merry Christmas

Mining Data

One of the most profitable activities in the world today is data mining. Internet companies offer “free” applications for your devices to enable you to search the internet, to buy goods competitively, to arrange your transport and get advice on all sorts of matters. Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch and in return these companies harvest your personal information which they use to sell to advertisers and companies that will try to entice you to buy their particular goods and services using the most sophisticated methods known to man.

One of the better projects of the European Union was to create a directive – in effect a law – which seeks to protect personal information that you may have revealed in the course of your use of the internet. The guiding principle is that such information can only be mined under strict conditions and used for legitimate purposes.

The directive is not written in the clearest language and leaves plenty of scope for EU member states to interpret it in ways that suit themselves and the corporations that mine data the best. As yet there are many aspects of the directive which need to be completed before we can say that the law properly protects our personal information. Perhaps that will come in time.

You can read the directive at http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/TXT/?uri=CELEX:31995L0046 .

In the fullness of time there will be many court cases which decide the meaning of the directive and volumes of guidance and local regulations will be written, which will reveal whether the directive will really protect citizens or whether it will be watered down.

 

 

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Although recent reports indicate that global carbon dioxide emissions are not increasing it is important to bear in mind that atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing. The most recent daily average measurement of carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa is 406.29 parts per million. This measurement is much more precise than the statistics we are given for global emissions, which are based upon assumptions as much as upon measurements.

The International Energy Agency estimates that global energy related carbon dioxide emissions were flat for a third straight year in 2016 due to growing renewable power generation, switches from coal to natural gas, improvements in energy efficiency, and structural changes in the global economy. My guess is that overall carbon dioxide emissions are rising, notwithstanding the increase in renewable energy. After all the population of the most intensive creators of carbon dioxide, humanity, is growing very quickly and most humans are living longer than they did in previous generations.

It is ironic that in November 2012 when Mauna Loa reported atmospheric CO2 at 392.81 ppm there was far more interest and general reporting of climate change whereas five years later the issue is hardly reported, except en passant. When I first started writing on WordPress  in 2007 concentrations were around 380 ppm. 250 years ago the concentration was thought to be around 280 pmm.