Fake news and the responsibilities of Online Service Providers

The Oxford dictionary named ‘post-truth’ the word of the 2016. This is the phenomenon “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Post-truth often spurs from the circulation of mis- or disinformation, which includes the so-called fake news. The case of the news about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US presidency is perhaps one of the most popular examples of the case in point.

Fake news are often hyper partisan and end up poisoning the civil discourse and public debate. While the spreading of fake news poses the responsibility to double-check their sources and the facts on the users’ shoulders, it also highlights the role and the responsibilities of Online Service Providers (OSPs)-e.g. AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter-in shaping public debate in contemporary societies. Should OSPs block the spreading of fake news? At what point would this start eroding freedom of speech and freedom of information?

Addressing these questions proves to be a serious challenge. While there is a general agreement on the centrality of OSPs in information societies, there is still little consensus about what principles should shape OSPs’ moral responsibilities and practices, over and above current legal requirements. These range from Google’s generic motto ‘‘don’t be evil’’ to much more specific guidelines concerning the protection of the public interest and the respect for basic democratic principles, as identified in the 2011 G8 Deauville Declaration. As a result, OSPs’ efforts to act on societal issues are still problematic and often encounter shortcomings in design, implementation, and public recognition.[1]

In mature information societies, OSPs act as information gatekeepers, as they control access to and flows of data and information. As such, they exercise a regulatory function, which entails moral responsibilities toward the public good.[2] For this reason it is increasingly recognised that, while they are responsible to their employees and shareholders, OSPs are also bear responsibilities toward human rights. See the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression to the Human Rights Council, David Kaye.

At the same time, however, it is problematic to ascribe to OSPs full responsibility for fostering and respecting human rights, and for deciding the circumstances in which these apply. Clearly, this ascription raises further problems when considering the need to balance the duties that these responsibilities may prompt and other rights, e.g. policing and filtering the content available online and the possible breaches of individual rights, such as freedom of speech and information. This is a difficult balance to strike. While OSPs should be held responsible for respecting this balance, and should be involved in the discussions aiming at striking a fair balance, it should not be their duty to define it and decide, for example, how much freedom of information can be sacrificed in the name of fact-checking.

Tackling OSPs’ responsibilities requires a meaningful reflection on current changes and insight on future ones. It needs to rely on multi stakeholders expertise and multidisciplinary theorising to develop an in-depth understand of the different stakeholders’ views, alongside the role of OSPs and other key agents shaping the informational environment, as well as of the values that will permit to design open, pluralistic, tolerant information societies. In this way, public debate will be fostered also thanks to the Internet and OSPs, rather than despite them.


[1] Taddeo, Mariarosaria, and Luciano Florid. 2015. “The Debate on the Moral Responsibilities of Online Service Providers.” Science and Engineering Ethics.

[2] Metoyer-Duran, Cheryl. 1993. “Information Gatekeepers.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) 28: 111–50.



The Responsibilities of Online Service Providers

Editors: Taddeo, Mariarosaria, Floridi, Luciano

  • Provides a comprehensive, overarching and multidisciplinary account of the responsibilities of Online Service Providers (OSP’s)
    • Tackles the highly relevant and complex issue of OSP’s responsibilities and the principles required to regulate their conduct
Mariarosaria Taddeo

Mariarosaria Taddeo

Mariarosaria Taddeo works at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and Faculty Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute. Her recent work focuses mainly on the ethical analysis of cyber security practices and information conflicts. Her area of expertise is Information and Computer Ethics, although she has worked on issues concerning Philosophy of Information, Epistemology, and Philosophy of AI. She published several papers focusing on online trust, cyber security and cyber warfare and guest-edited a number of special issues of peer-reviewed international journals: Ethics and Information Technology, Knowledge, Technology and Policy, Philosophy & Technology. She also edited (with L. Floridi) a volume on ‘The Ethics of Information Warfare’ (Springer, 2014) and is currently writing a book on ‘The Ethics of Cyber Conflicts’ under contract for Routledge. Dr. Taddeo is the 2010 recipient of the Simon Award for Outstanding Research in Computing and Philosophy and of the 2013 World Technology Award for Ethics. She serves editor-in-chief of Minds & Machines, in the executive editorial board of Philosophy & Technology. Since 2016, Dr Taddeo is Global Future Council Fellow for the Council on the Future of Cybersecurity of the World Economic Forum.
Mariarosaria Taddeo
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