The UK is planning to crack down on damaging Internet content on social media platforms, which could face fines for failing to prevent activities such as child exploitation and incitement to violence.
The government is “minded” to give broadcast regulator Ofcom a role as internet watchdog, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement on Wednesday. The proposals are yet to be fleshed out, but the regulator is likely be handed the power to fine companies such as Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc if they fail to protect UK users from harmful content, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an Internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve,” Morgan said.
The UK is trying to get to grips with ungoverned areas of the internet as it increasingly dominates modern life and exposes children in particular to the danger of harmful experiences, including abuse, bullying and terrorist material.
The announcement risks inflaming tensions with the US, which has already pushed back against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to impose a digital services tax on Internet giants as efforts to devise an international solution drag on.
Under Wednesday’s proposals, which would place a duty of care on Internet companies:
Online platforms must minimise the risk of illegal content appearing, especially terrorist content and online child abuse; they must also remove illegal material quickly. Ofcom will safeguard free speech and defend the role of the press.
Adults won’t be stopped from accessing or posting legal content that some may find offensive. The rules will only apply to companies that allow the sharing of user-generated content such as comments, videos or forums; less than 5% of UK businesses are expected to be affected.
The plans add to a series of steps UK authorities are already taking. As well as the digital services tax plan, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham unveiled a code of conduct last month which is designed to protect children’s data online so they’re less exposed to damaging content.
Harmful content represents one of the trickiest areas to regulate because of the vast amount of material posted daily on social media sites, as well as the need to strike a balance between protecting free speech and determining what content needs to be removed.
Implementation of the plan will fall to Melanie Dawes, a civil servant at the Ministry of Housing, who Ofcom said Wednesday will become the regulator’s chief executive officer in early March. Interim CEO Jonathan Oxley said the regulator shares the government’s “ambition to keep people safe online.”
“We will work with the government to help ensure that regulation provides effective protection for people online and, if appointed, will consider what voluntary steps can be taken in advance of legislation,” Oxley said.
In 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government started enforcing the continent’s toughest law aimed at reducing hate speech and fake news — threatening to fine the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube as much as $55 million if they fail to delete illegal posts.