UK sets out safety focused plan to regulate Internet firms

The UK government has laid out proposals to regulate online and social media platforms, setting out the substance of its long-awaited White Paper on online harms today and kicking off a public consultation.

The Online Harms White Paper is a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Home Office.

It follows the government announcement of a policy intent last May, and a string of domestic calls for greater regulation of the Internet as politicians have responded to rising concern about the mental health impacts of online content.

The government is now proposing to put a mandatory duty of care on platforms to take reasonable steps to protect their from a range of harms including but not limited to illegal material such as terrorist and child sexual exploitation and abuse (which will be covered by further stringent requirements under the plan).

The approach is also intended to address a range of content and activity that’s deemed harmful.

Examples providing by the government of the sorts of broader harms it’s targeting include inciting violence and violent content; encouraging suicide; disinformation; cyber bullying; and inappropriate material being accessed by children.

Content promoting suicide has been thrown into the public spotlight in the UK in recent months, following media reports about a schoolgirl whose family found out she had been viewing pro-suicide content on Instagram after she killed herself.

The Facebook -owned platform subsequently agreed to change its policies towards suicide content, saying it would start censoring graphic images of self-harm, after pressure from ministers.

Commenting on the publication of the White Paper today, digital secretary Jeremy Wright said: “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over. Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough. Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However those that fail to do this will face tough action.

”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.”

In another supporting statement Home Secretary Sajid Javid added: “The giants and social media companies have a moral duty 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.”

Children’s charity, the NSPCC, was among the sector bodies welcoming the proposal.

“This is a hugely significant commitment by the that once enacted, can make the UK a world pioneer in protecting children online,” wrote CEO Peter Wanless in a statement.

For too long social networks have failed to prioritise children’s safety and left them exposed to grooming, abuse, and harmful content.  So it’s high time they were forced to act through this legally binding duty to protect children, backed up with hefty punishments if they fail to do so.”

Although the Internet Watch Foundation, which works to stop the spread of child exploitation imagery online, warned against unintended consequences from badly planned legislation — and urged the government to take a “balanced approach”.

The proposed laws would apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online meaning companies both big and small.

Nor is it just social media platforms either, with file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services, and search engines among those falling under the planned law’s remit.

The government says a new independent regulator will be introduced to ensure Internet companies meet their responsibilities, with ministers consulting on whether this should be a new or existing body.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has been rumored as one possible contender, though the UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, has previously suggested it should be involved in any Internet oversight given its responsibility for data protection and privacy. (According to the FT a hybrid entity combining the two is another possibility although the newspaper reports that the government remains genuinely undecided on who the regulator will be.)

The future Internet watchdog will be funded by industry in the medium term, with the government saying it’s exploring options such as an industry levy to put it on a sustainable footing.

On the enforcement front, the watchdog will be armed with a range of tools with the government consulting on powers for it to issue substantial fines; block access to sites; and potentially to impose liability on individual members of senior management.

So there’s at least the prospect of a high profile social media CEO being threatened with UK jail time in future if they don’t do enough to remove harmful content.

On the financial penalties front, Wright suggested that the government is entertaining GDPR-level fines of as much as 4% of a company’s annual turnover, speaking during an interview on Sky News…

Other elements of the proposed framework include giving the regulator the power to force tech companies to publish annual transparency reports on the amount of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to address it; to compel companies to respond to users’ complaints and act to address them quickly; and to comply with codes of practice issued by the regulator, such as requirements to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation with dedicated fact checkers, particularly during election periods.

A long-running enquiry by a DCMS parliamentary committee into online disinformation last year, which was continuously frustrated in its attempts to get Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to testify before it, concluded with a laundry list of recommendations for tightening regulations around digital campaigning.

The committee also recommended clear legal liabilities for tech companies to act against “harmful or illegal content”, and suggested a levy on tech firms to support enhanced regulation.

Responding to the government’s White Paper in a statement today DCMS chair Damian Collins broadly welcomed the government’s proposals though he also pressed for the future regulator to have the power to conduct its own investigations, rather than relying on self reporting by tech firms.

“We need a clear definition of how quickly social media companies should be required to take down harmful content, and this should include not only when it is referred to them by users, but also when it is easily within their power to discover this content for themselves,” Collins wrote.

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“The regulator should also give guidance on the responsibilities of social media companies to ensure that their algorithms are not consistently directing users to harmful content.”

Another element of the government’s proposal is a “Safety by Design” framework that’s intended to help companies incorporate online safety features in new apps and platforms from the start.

The government also wants the regulator to head up a media literacy strategy that’s intended to equip people with the knowledge to recognise and deal with a range of deceptive and malicious behaviours online, such as catfishing, grooming and extremism.

It writes that the UK is committed to a free, open and secure Internet and makes a point of noting that the watchdog will have a legal duty to pay “due regard” to innovation, and also to protect users’ rights online by paying particular mindful not infringe privacy and freedom of expression.

It therefore suggests technology will be an integral part of any solution, saying the proposals are designed to promote a culture of continuous improvement among companies and highlighting technologies such as Google’s “Family Link” and Apple’s Screen Time as examples of the sorts of developments it wants the policy framework to encourage.

Although such caveats are unlikely to do much to reassure those concerned the approach will chill online speech, and/or place an impossible burden on smaller firms with less resource to monitor what their users are doing.

“The government’s proposals would create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens,” warns digital and civil rights group, the Open Rights Group, in a statement by its executive director Jim Killock. “We have to expect that the duty of care will end up widely drawn with serious implications for legal content, that is deemed potentially risky, whether it really is nor not.

“The government refused to create a state regulator the press because it didn’t want to be seen to be controlling free expression. We are skeptical that state regulation is the right approach.”

UK policy advocacy group Coadec was also quick to voice concerns warning that the government’s plans will “entrench the tech giants, not punish them”.

“The vast scope of the proposals means they cover not just social media but virtually the entire internet from file sharing to newspaper comment sections. Those most impacted will not be the tech giants the Government claims they are targeting, but everyone else. It will benefit the largest platforms with the resources and legal might to comply and restrict the ability of British startups to compete fairly,” said Coadec executive director Dom Hallas in a statement. 

“There is a reason that Mark Zuckerberg has called for more regulation. It is in Facebook’s business interest.”

UK startup industry association, techUK, also put out a response statement that warns about the need to avoid disproportionate impacts.

“Some of the key pillars of the Government’s approach remain too vague,” said Vinous Ali, head of policy, techUK. “It is vital that the new framework is effective, proportionate and predictable. Clear legal definitions that allow companies in scope to understand the law and therefore act quickly and with confidence will be key to the success of the new system.

“Not all of the legitimate concerns about online harms can be addressed through regulation. The new framework must be complemented by renewed efforts to ensure children, young people and adults alike have the skills and awareness to navigate the digital world safely and securely.”

The government has launched a 12-week consultation on the proposals, ending July 1, after which it says it will set out the action it will take in developing its final proposals for legislation.

“Following the publication of the Government Response to the consultation, we will forward legislation when parliamentary time allows,” it adds.

Last month a House of Lords committee recommended an overarching super regulator be established to plug any legislative gaps and/or handle overlaps in rules on Internet platforms, arguing that “a new framework for regulatory action” is to handle the digital world.

Though the government appears confident that an Internet regulator will be able to navigate any legislative patchwork and keep tech firms in line on its own at least, for now.

The House of Lords committee was another parliamentary body that came down in support of a statutory duty of care for online services hosting user-generated content, suggesting it should have a special focus on children and “the vulnerable in society”.

And there’s no doubt the concept of regulating Internet platforms has broad consensus among UK politicians on both sides of the aisle. But how to do that effectively and proportionately is another matter.

We reached out to Facebook and Google for a response to the White Paper.

Responding in an emailed statement, Google public policy manager Claire Lilley said: “The issues raised in today’s white paper are of real importance to us and the people that use our services. To help overcome these issues, we haven’t waited for regulation, we’ve created new technology, hired experts and specialists, and ensured our policies are fit for the evolving challenges we face online. Our work has the most impact when companies, Government and communities work together. We look forward to looking at the detail of these suggestions and working in partnership to ensure a free, open and safer internet that works for everyone.”

Also commenting on the Online Harms White Paper in a statement, Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of UK public policy, said: “New rules for the internet should protect society from harm while also supporting innovation, the digital economy and freedom of 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 also reiterated how Facebook has expanded the number of staff it has working on trust and safety issues to 30,000 in recent years, as well as claiming it’s invested heavily in technology to help prevent abuse while conceding that “we know there is much more to do”.

Last month the company revealed shortcomings with its safety measures around livestreaming, after it emerged that a massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand which was livestreamed to Facebook’s platform, had not been flagged for accelerated review by moderates because it was not tagged as suicide related content.

Facebook said it would be “learning” from the incident and “re-examining our reporting logic and experiences for both live and recently live videos in order to expand the categories that would get to accelerated review”.

In its response to the UK government White Paper today, Stimson added: “The internet has transformed how billions of people live, work and connect with each other, but new forms of communication also bring huge challenges. We have responsibilities to keep people safe on our services and we share the government’s commitment to tackling harmful content online. As Mark Zuckerberg said last month, new regulations are needed so that we have a standardised approach across platforms and private companies aren’t making so many important decisions alone.”

This report was updated with comment from Google 



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