The United Kingdom is poised to enforce a new hard line against content they deem unsafe. In the name of safety, they are moving to establish the worlds first “independent regulator” to keep social media companies in check for content hosted on their platforms.
CNET reports that if companies are unable, or unwilling to meet requirements created by this body then they could not only face steep fines, but their senior staff members could find themselves at personal liability.
The new regulations were announced by the Home Office as well as the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport just a week after a white paper titled Online Harms recommended a central regulator to keep UK users safe online.
This new regulator will make sure social media companies confront a number of problems:
- Incitement of violence and the spread of violent (including terrorist) content
- Encouragement of self-harm or suicide
- The spread of disinformation and fake news
- Children’s access to inappropriate material
- Child exploitation and abuse content
Major tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter won’t be the only ones to fall under these new regulations. File-hosting sites, online forums, messaging services are also on the hook to comply with the regulator.
In a statement, UK Prime Minister Theresa May applauded the recommendations by chastising tech giants for not doing enough: “For too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children, and young people, from harmful content.” She continued, “We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe.”.
On Twitter, she also reinforced the idea that the UK government is now putting the duty of “protecting” UK citizens online at the hands of these tech giants.
Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms, and help restore public trust in this technology.
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) April 8, 2019
A Twitter spokeswoman responded to the new regulations, “We will continue to engage in the discussion between industry and the UK Government as as well as work to strike an appropriate balance between keeping users safe and preserving the internet’s open, free nature.”
A UK consortium of technology, TechUK, which includes Facebook, released a statement on the proposals, pointing to the fact that many are far too vague:
“The duty of care is a deceptively straightforward sounding concept. However it is still not clearly defined and open to broad interpretation,” the group said. “Government will need to clarify the legal meaning and how it expects companies to comply with such a potentially broad obligation which could conflict with other fundamental rights – particularly in relation to private communications on their platforms.”
Activists for a free internet, who see such moves by governments as simply a means to censor opinions and ideas that they feel could compete with their approved messages, are not enthused by the UK’s new regulations.
Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a libertarian think tank wrote to NPR where he indicated the proposal “mandates a sweeping system of self-censorship.” He indicates it could cause companies to “over-censor in order to avoid the wrath of the regulator.” He worries this could “legitimize the same kind of system in Russia, China and other countries.” He added, governments “will all undoubtedly exploit the UK’s model to justify their own system of censoring content they deem ‘harmful.'”
This broad vision and expectation of monitoring content could reveal China’s famous Great Firewall that precludes citizens from being exposed to certain ideas and even words without government approval.
In the private sector, the UK isn’t alone on this issue. In March, Microsoft President Brad Smith called upon his peers within the tech industry to do what they can do in order to prevent the spread of what they deem as controversial materials. Smith would advocate for a centralized authority that could in practice censor the internet.
What do you think of the UK’s new regulations regarding the Internet? Is this a sincere attempt to create a safer environment for its citizens as they go online? Or is this a simple power grab?