Social media and tech companies could be fined or blocked if they don’t protect users from harmful content under a new British government proposal.
The Online Harms White Paper is a joint proposal by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office unveiled on Monday that aims to reduce the diffusion of harmful content on the Internet.
It covers content inciting violence, encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyberbullying and children accessing inappropriate material.
There will also be requirements for companies to tackle terrorist content and child sexual exploitation and abuse content.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said that while the Internet was good at keeping people connected it had not done enough to protect users from unwanted content.
"That is not good enough, and it is time to do things differently," May said in a statement. "We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe."
Why now? What triggered it?
Easy access to harmful material on the Internet has caused growing concern worldwide. Last month, the world was shocked by a streaming a shooting in two New Zealand mosques on Facebook Live.
Shortly after that, Australia said it would fine social media and web hosting companies and jail executives from these companies if this sort of material wasn’t removed “expeditiously”.
In the UK, there has been growing concern that harmful content on the Internet is particularly impacting the youth. The problem came into the spotlight after the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell who viewed online material on depression and suicide before taking her own life.
What does it entail?
Under the government's proposal, an independent regulator would be appointed to make sure the new laws are being followed and enforce a "best code of practice" to safeguard users from harmful content.
The regulator would be given the power to slap fines on social media companies if they fail to protect people from harmful content, block access to some websites, and make tech company executives liable for failing to block distribution of this type of content.
It would be funded by the tech industry, though the government has not decided whether to create a new body or hand over the power to an existing one.
The laws would apply to all social media platforms, hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services, and search engines, said a press release.
Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said that online companies needed to be regulated because "voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough."
”We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business and our proposals for new laws will help make sure everyone in our country can enjoy the Internet safely.”
While Home Secretary Sajid Javid called attention to the "moral duty" of tech giants and social media companies to "protect the young people they profit from."
“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism - is still too readily available online.
“That is why we are forcing these firms to clean up their act once and for all. I made it my mission to protect our young people – and we are now delivering on that promise.”
Reaction from social media giants and tech experts
Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of UK policy said the new rules should strike a balance between protecting society and supporting innovation and free speech.
"These are complex issues to get right and we look forward to working with the government and parliament to ensure new regulations are effective," Stimson said in a statement.
While the paper represents a good step forward in limiting harmful content on the internet, TechUK, an industry trade group, said that some aspects remained too vague.
"It is vital that the new framework is effective, proportionate and predictable," TechUK said in a statement, adding not all concerns could be addressed through regulation.