The UK has proposed a new set of regulations for social media companies that would include fines, site blocks and prosecution of senior management for companies that fail to protect their users.
In a white paper published today, the government proposes setting up a regulator to police online platforms with serious penalties if they fail to remove violent content ‘expeditiously’.
The regulator will initially be funded by industry, but the government says it is considering setting up an industry levy to make it sustainable in the long term.
“The internet can be brilliant at connecting people across the world – but for too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content,” says prime minister Theresa May.
“That is not good enough, and it is time to do things differently.”
The proposals cover a range of online material, including terrorist content, child sex abuse, revenge porn, hate crimes, harassment and the sale of illegal goods. Also included are rather more grey areas of the law, such as cyber-bullying, trolling and the spread of fake news.
The government suggests that platforms may be forced to introduce fact-checking services, particularly during election periods.
“We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe,” says May.
“Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms, and help restore public trust in this technology.”
Many campaign groups, particularly childrens’ charities such as the NSPCC and Barnados, have welcomed the proposals. And thery are likely to have public support, with a recent survey from cybersecurity PR agency Eskenzi PR revealing that 83 per cent of Brits believe Facebook needs to be regulated. Three quarters say it is damaging people’s mental health and seven in ten saying that fake news damages democracy.
However, as always, freedom of speech campaigners are concerned. Index on Censorship, for example, believes that the ‘duty of care’ enshrined in the proposals could lead to an overly-strong incentive for platforms to censor content.
Another issue is the broad range of content covered, right down to such minor annoyances as spam and bad language.
“The online harms white paper will set the direction for future internet regulation. Index is concerned that protecting freedom of expression is less important than the government wanting to be seen as ‘doing something’ in response to public pressure,” says head of advocacy Joy Hyvarinen.
“Internet regulation needs a calm, evidence-based approach that safeguards freedom of expression rather than undermining it.”
Matthew Lesh, head of research at right-wing think-tank the Adam Smith Institute agrees.
“The government should be ashamed of themselves for leading the western world in internet censorship,” he says.
“The proposals are a historic attack on freedom of speech and the free press. At a time when Britain is criticising violations of freedom of expression in states like Iran, China and Russia, we should not be undermining our freedom at home.”
The government will now consult on the proposals, and will publish a final version in around three months.