The U.K. government is rushing to finalize a draft internet censorship law particularly targeting social media but key details of the proposal have yet to be finalised amid concerns about stifling innovation.
Government officials have been meeting with industry players, MPs, peers and other groups over the past month as they try to finalise their proposals.
People involved in those discussions said there is now broad agreement about the need to impose a new duty of care on big tech companies, as well as the need to back up their terms and conditions with the force of law.
A white paper is due be published by the end of winter. But the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is partly responsible for writing up the new rules alongside the Home Office, is still deliberating over key aspects with just
weeks to go until the government said it would unveil an outline of its proposals.
Among the sticking points are worries that regulation could stifle innovation in one of the U.K. economy's most thriving sectors and concerns over whether it can keep pace with rapid technological change. Another is ensuring sufficient political
support to pass the law despite likely opposition from parts of the Conservative Party. A third is deciding what regulatory agency would ultimately be responsible for enforcing the so-called Internet Safety Law.
A major unresolved question is what censorship body will be in charge of enforcing laws that could expose big tech companies to greater liability for hosted content, a prospect that firms including Google and Facebook have fought at the European
Several people who spoke to POLITICO said the government does not appear to have settled on who would be the censor, although the communications regulator Ofcom is very much in the mix, however there are concerns that Ofcom is already getting too
Wrangling in Whitehall has held up plans to set up a social media censor dubbed Ofweb, The Mail on Sunday reveals.
The Government was due to publish a White Paper this winter on censorship of tech giants but this Mail has learnt it is still far from ready. Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said it would be published within a month, but a Cabinet source said
that timeline was wholly unrealistic. Other senior Government sources went further and said the policy document is unlikely to surface before the Spring.
Key details on how a new censor would work have yet to be decided while funding from the Treasury has not yet been secured. Another problem is that some Ministers believe the proposed clampdown is too draconian and are preparing to try to block
or water down the plan.
There are also concerns that technically difficult requirements would benefit the largest US companies as smaller European companies and start ups would not be able to afford the technology and development required.
The Mail on Sunday understands Jeremy Wright has postponed a visit to Facebook HQ in California to discuss the measures, as key details are still up in the air.
Update: The Conservatives don't have a monopoly on internet censorship...Labour agrees
Labour has called for a new entity capable of taking on the likes of Facebook and Google. Tom Watson, the shadow digital secretary, will on Wednesday say a regulator should also have responsibility for competition policy and be able to refer
cases to the Competition and Markets Authority.
According to Watson, any duty of care would only be effective with penalties that seriously affect companies' bottom lines. He has referred to regulators' ability to fine companies up to 4% of global turnover, or euro 20m, whichever is higher,
for worst-case breaches of the EU-wide General Data Protection Regulation.
There is every reason to believe that the government and opposition are moving to a consensus on introducing a duty of care for social media companies to reduce harm and risk to their users. This may be backed by an Internet regulator, who
might decide what kind of mitigating actions are appropriate to address the risks to users on different platforms.
This idea originated from a series of papers by Will Perrin and Lorna Woods and has been mentioned most recently in a recent Science and Technology committee report and by NGOs including children's charity 5Rights.
A duty of care has some obvious merits: it could be based on objective risks, based on evidence, and ensure that mitigations are proportionate to those risks. It could take some of the politicisation out of the current debate.
However, it also has obvious problems. For a start, it focuses on risk rather than process . It moves attention away from the fact that interventions are regulating social media users just as much as platforms. It does not by itself tell us that
free expression impacts will be considered, tracked or mitigated.
Furthermore, the lack of focus that a duty of care model gives to process means that platform decisions that have nothing to do with risky content are not necessarily based on better decisions, independent appeals and so on. Rather, as has
happened with German regulation, processes can remain unaffected when they are outside a duty of care.
In practice, a lot of content which is disturbing or offensive is already banned on online platforms. Much of this would not be in scope under a duty of care but it is precisely these kinds of material which users often complain about, when it is
either not removed when they want it gone, or is removed incorrectly. Any model of social media regulation needs to improve these issues, but a duty of care is unlikely to touch these problems.
There are very many questions about the kinds of risk, whether to individual in general, vulnerable groups, or society at large; and the evidence required to create action. The truth is that a duty of care, if cast sensibly and narrowly, will not
satisfy many of the people who are demanding action; equally, if the threshold to act is low, then it will quickly be seen to be a mechanism for wide-scale Internet censorship.
It is also a simple fact that many decisions that platforms make about legal content which is not risky are not the business of government to regulate. This includes decisions about what legal content is promoted and why. For this reason, we
believe that a better approach might be to require independent self-regulation of major platforms across all of their content decisions. This requirement could be a legislative one, but the regulator would need to be independent of government and
Independent self-regulation has not been truly tried. Instead, voluntary agreements have filled its place. We should be cautious about moving straight to government regulation of social media and social media users. The government refuses to
regulate the press in this way because it doesn't wish to be seen to be controlling print media. It is pretty curious that neither the media nor the government are spelling out the risks of state regulation of the speech of millions of British
That we are in this place is of course largely the fault of the social media platforms themselves, who have failed to understand the need and value of transparent and accountable systems to ensure they are acting properly. That, however, just
demonstrates the problem: politically weak platforms who have created monopoly positions based on data silos are now being sliced and diced at the policy table for their wider errors. It's imperative that as these government proposals progress we
keep focus on the simple fact that it is end users whose speech will ultimately be regulated.
Social media companies face criminal sanctions for failing to protect children from online harms, according to drafts of the Government's White Paper circulating in Whitehall.
Civil servants are proposing a new corporate offence as an option in the White Paper plans for a tough new censor with the power to force social media firms to take down illegal content and to police legal but harmful material.
They see criminal sanctions as desirable and as an important part of a regulatory regime, said one source who added that there's a recognition particularly on the Home Office side that this needs to be a regulator with teeth. The main issue they
need to satisfy ministers on is extra-territoriality, that is can you apply this to non-UK companies like Facebook and YouTube? The belief is that you can.
The White Paper, which is due to published mid-March followed by a Summer consultation, is not expected to lay out as definitive a plan as previously thought. A decision on whether to create a brand new censor or use Ofcom is expected to be left
open. A Whitehall source said:
Criminal sanctions are going to be put into the White Paper as an option. We are not necessarily saying we are going to do it but these are things that are open to us. They will be allied to a system of fines amounting to 4% of global turnover
or Euros 20m, whichever is higher.
Government minister Jeremy Wright told the Telegraph this week he was especially focused on ensuring that technology companies enforce minimum age standards. He also indicated the Government w ould fulfill a manifesto commitment to a levy on
social media firms, that could fund the new censorr.
The world's biggest internet companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter are represented by a trade group call The Internet Association. This organisation has written to UK government ministers to outline how they believe harmful online
activity should be regulated.
The letter has been sent to the culture, health and home secretaries. The letter will be seen as a pre-emptive move in the coming negotiation over new rules to govern the internet. The government is due to publish a delayed White Paper on online
harms in the coming weeks.
The letter outlines six principles:
"Be targeted at specific harms, using a risk-based approach
"Provide flexibility to adapt to changing technologies, different services and evolving societal expectations
"Maintain the intermediary liability protections that enable the internet to deliver significant benefits for consumers, society and the economy
"Be technically possible to implement in practice
"Provide clarity and certainty for consumers, citizens and internet companies
"Recognise the distinction between public and private communication"
Many leading figures in the UK technology sector fear a lack of expertise in government, and hardening public sentiment against the excesses of the internet, will push the Online Harms paper in a more radical direction.
Three of the key areas of debate are the definition of online harm, the lack of liability for third-party content, and the difference between public and private communication.
The companies insist that government should recognise the distinction between clearly illegal content and content which is harmful, but not illegal. If these leading tech companies believe this government definition of harm is too broad, their
insistence on a distinction between illegal and harmful content may be superseded by another set of problems.
The companies also defend the principle that platforms such as YouTube permit users to post and share information without fear that those platforms will be held liable for third-party content. Another area which will be of particular interest to
the Home Office is the insistence that care should be taken to avoid regulation encroaching into the surveillance of private communications.
In the first online safety laws of their kind, social media companies and tech firms will be legally required to protect their users and face tough penalties if they do not comply.
As part of the Online Harms White Paper, a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office, a new independent regulator will be introduced to ensure companies meet their responsibilities.
This will include a mandatory 'duty of care', which will require companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services. The regulator will have effective enforcement tools, and we
are consulting on powers to issue substantial fines, block access to sites and potentially to impose liability on individual members of senior management.
A range of harms will be tackled as part of the
Online Harms White Paper , including inciting violence and violent content, encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyber bullying and children accessing inappropriate material.
There will be stringent requirements for companies to take even tougher action to ensure they tackle terrorist and child sexual exploitation and abuse content.
The new proposed laws will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online. This means a wide range of companies of all sizes are in scope, including social media platforms,
file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services, and search engines.
A regulator will be appointed to enforce the new framework. The Government is now consulting on whether the regulator should be a new or existing body. The regulator will be funded by industry in the medium term, and the Government is exploring
options such as an industry levy to put it on a sustainable footing.
12 week consultation on the proposals has also been launched today. Once this concludes we will then set out the action we will take in developing our final proposals for legislation.
Tough new measures set out in the White Paper include:
A new statutory 'duty of care' to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services.
Further stringent requirements on tech companies to ensure child abuse and terrorist content is not disseminated online.
Giving a regulator the power to force social media platforms and others to publish annual transparency reports on the amount of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to address this.
Making companies respond to users' complaints, and act to address them quickly.
Codes of practice, issued by the regulator, which could include measures such as requirements to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation with dedicated fact checkers, particularly during election periods.
A new "Safety by Design" framework to help companies incorporate online safety features in new apps and platforms from the start.
A media literacy strategy to equip people with the knowledge to recognise and deal with a range of deceptive and malicious behaviours online, including catfishing, grooming and extremism.
The UK remains committed to a free, open and secure Internet. The regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to innovation, and to protect users' rights online, being particularly mindful to not infringe privacy and freedom of expression.
Recognising that the Internet can be a tremendous force for good, and that technology will be an integral part of any solution, the new plans have been designed to promote a culture of continuous improvement among companies. The new regime will
ensure that online firms are incentivised to develop and share new technological solutions, like Google's "Family Link" and Apple's Screen Time app, rather than just complying with minimum requirements. Government has balanced the clear
need for tough regulation with its ambition for the UK to be the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business, and the new regulatory framework will provide strong protection for our citizens while driving innovation by not
placing an impossible burden on smaller companies.
Critics of the government's flagship internet regulation policy are warning it could lead to a North Korean-style censorship regime, where regulators decide which websites Britons are allowed to visit, because of how broad the proposals are.
Index on Censorship has raised strong concerns about the government's focus on tackling unlawful and harmful online content, particularly since the publication of the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper in 2017. In October 2018, Index published
a joint statement with Global Partners Digital and Open Rights Group noting that any proposals that regulate content are likely to have a significant impact on the enjoyment and exercise of human rights online, particularly freedom of
We have also met with officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as from the Home Office, to raise our thoughts and concerns.
With the publication of the Online Harms White Paper , we would like to reiterate our earlier points.
While we recognise the government's desire to tackle unlawful content online, the proposals mooted in the white paper -- including a new duty of care on social media platforms , a regulatory body , and even the fining and banning of social media
platforms as a sanction -- pose serious risks to freedom of expression online.
These risks could put the United Kingdom in breach of its obligations to respect and promote the right to freedom of expression and information as set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10
of the European Convention on Human Rights, amongst other international treaties.
Social media platforms are a key means for tens of millions of individuals in the United Kingdom to search for, receive, share and impart information, ideas and opinions. The scope of the right to freedom of expression includes speech which may
be offensive, shocking or disturbing . The proposed responses for tackling online safety may lead to disproportionate amounts of legal speech being curtailed, undermining the right to freedom of expression.
In particular, we raise the following concerns related to the white paper:
Lack of evidence base
The wide range of different harms which the government is seeking to tackle in this policy process require different, tailored responses. Measures proposed must be underpinned by strong evidence, both of the likely scale of the harm and the
measures' likely effectiveness. The evidence which formed the base of the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper was highly variable in its quality. Any legislative or regulatory measures should be supported by clear and unambiguous evidence of
their need and effectiveness.
Duty of care concerns/ problems with 'harm' definition
Index is concerned at the use of a duty of care regulatory approach. Although social media has often been compared the public square, the duty of care model is not an exact fit because this would introduce regulation -- and restriction -- of
speech between individuals based on criteria that is far broader than current law. A failure to accurately define "harmful" content risks incorporating legal speech, including political expression, expressions of religious views,
expressions of sexuality and gender, and expression advocating on behalf of minority groups.
Risks in linking liability/sanctions to platforms over third party content
While well-meaning, proposals such as these contain serious risks, such as requiring or incentivising wide-sweeping removal of lawful and innocuous content. The imposition of time limits for removal, heavy sanctions for non-compliance or
incentives to use automated content moderation processes only heighten this risk, as has been evidenced by the approach taken in Germany via its Network Enforcement Act (or NetzDG), where there is evidence of the over-removal of lawful content.
Lack of sufficient protections for freedom of expression.
The obligation to protect users' rights online that is included in the white paper gives insufficient weight to freedom of expression. A much clearer obligation to protect freedom of expression should guide development of future regulation.
In recognition of the UK's commitment to the multistakeholder model of internet governance, we hope all relevant stakeholders, including civil society experts on digital rights and freedom of expression, will be fully engaged throughout the
development of the Online Harms bill.
PI welcomes the UK government's commitment to investigating and holding companies to account. When it comes to regulating the internet, however, we must move with care. Failure to do so will introduce, rather than reduce, "online
harms". A 12-week consultation on the proposals has also been launched today. PI plans to file a submission to the consultation as it relates to our work. Given the breadth of the proposals, PI calls on others respond to the consultation as
Here are our initial suggestions:
proceed with care: proposals of regulation of content on digital media platforms should be very carefully evaluated, given the high risks of negative impacts on expression, privacy and other human rights. This is a very complex challenge and
we support the need for broad consultation before any legislation is put forward in this area.
do not lose sight of how data exploitation facilitates the harms identified in the report and ensure any new regulator works closely with others working to tackle these issues.
assess carefully the delegation of sole responsibility to companies as adjudicators of content. This would empower corporate judgment over content, with would have implications for human rights, particularly freedom of expression and privacy.
require that judicial or other independent authorities, rather than government agencies, are the final arbiters of decisions regarding what is posted online and enforce such decisions in a manner that is consistent with human rights norms.
assess the privacy implications of any demand for "proactive" monitoring of content in digital media platforms.
ensure that any requirement or expectation of deploying automated decision making/AI is in full compliance with existing human rights and data protection standards (which, for example, prohibit, with limited exceptions, relying on solely
automated decisions, including profiling, when they significantly affect individuals).
ensure that company transparency reports include information related to how the content was targeted at users.
require companies to provide efficient reporting tools in multiple languages, to report on action taken with regard to content posted online. Reporting tools should be accessible, user-friendly, and easy to find. There should be full
transparency regarding the complaint and redress mechanisms available and opportunities for civil society to take action.
UK Now Proposes Ridiculous Plan To Fine Internet Companies For Vaguely Defined Harmful Content
Last week Australia rushed through a ridiculous bill to fine internet companies if they happen to host any abhorrent content. It appears the UK took one look at that nonsense and decided it wanted some too. On Monday it released a white paper
calling for massive fines for internet companies for allowing any sort of online harms. To call the plan nonsense is being way too harsh to nonsense
The plan would result in massive, widespread, totally unnecessary censorship solely for the sake of pretending to do something about the fact that some people sometimes do not so nice things online. And it will place all of the blame on the
internet companies for the (vaguely defined) not so nice things that those companies' users might do online.
We agree with your characterisation of the online harms white paper as a flawed attempt to deal with serious problems (Regulating the internet demands clear thought about hard problems, Editorial, 9 April). However, we would draw your attention
to several fundamental problems with the proposal which could be disastrous if it proceeds in its current form.
Firstly, the white paper proposes to regulate literally the entire internet, and censor anything non-compliant. This extends to blogs, file services, hosting platforms, cloud computing; nothing is out of scope.
Secondly, there are a number of undefined harms with no sense of scope or evidence thresholds to establish a need for action. The lawful speech of millions of people would be monitored, regulated and censored.
The result is an approach that would make China's state censors proud. It would be very likely to face legal challenge. It would give the UK the widest and most prolific internet censorship in an apparently functional democracy. A fundamental
rethink is needed.
Antonia Byatt Director, English PEN,
Silkie Carlo Big Brother Watch
Thomas Hughes Executive director, Article 19
Jim Killock Executive director, Open Rights Group
Joy Hyvarinen Head of advocacy, Index on Censorship
Comment: The DCMS Online Harms Strategy must design in fundamental rights
Increasingly over the past year, DCMS has become fixated on the idea of imposing a duty of care on social media platforms, seeing this as a flexible and de-politicised way to emphasise the dangers of exposing children and young people to
certain online content and make Facebook in particular liable for the uglier and darker side of its user-generated material.
DCMS talks a lot about the 'harm' that social media causes. But its proposals fail to explain how harm to free expression impacts would be avoided.
On the positive side, the paper lists free expression online as a core value to be protected and addressed by the regulator. However, despite the apparent prominence of this value, the mechanisms to deliver this protection and the issues at play
are not explored in any detail at all.
In many cases, online platforms already act as though they have a duty of care towards their users. Though the efficacy of such measures in practice is open to debate, terms and conditions, active moderation of posts and algorithmic choices about
what content is pushed or downgraded are all geared towards ousting illegal activity and creating open and welcoming shared spaces. DCMS hasn't in the White Paper elaborated on what its proposed duty would entail. If it's drawn narrowly so that
it only bites when there is clear evidence of real, tangible harm and a reason to intervene, nothing much will change. However, if it's drawn widely, sweeping up too much content, it will start to act as a justification for widespread internet
If platforms are required to prevent potentially harmful content from being posted, this incentivises widespread prior restraint. Platforms can't always know in advance the real-world harm that online content might cause, nor can they accurately
predict what people will say or do when on their platform. The only way to avoid liability is to impose wide-sweeping upload filters. Scaled implementation of this relies on automated decision-making and algorithms, which risks even greater
speech restrictions given that machines are incapable of making nuanced distinctions or recognising parody or sarcasm.
DCMS's policy is underpinned by societally-positive intentions, but in its drive to make the internet "safe", the government seems not to recognise that ultimately its proposals don't regulate social media companies, they regulate
social media users. The duty of care is ostensibly aimed at shielding children from danger and harm but it will in practice bite on adults too, wrapping society in cotton wool and curtailing a whole host of legal expression.
Although the scheme will have a statutory footing, its detail will depend on codes of practice drafted by the regulator. This makes it difficult to assess how the duty of care framework will ultimately play out.
The duty of care seems to be broadly about whether systemic interventions reduce overall "risk". But must the risk be always to an identifiable individual, or can it be broader - to identifiable vulnerable groups? To society as a whole?
What evidence of harm will be required before platforms should intervene? These are all questions that presently remain unanswered.
DCMS's approach appears to be that it will be up to the regulator to answer these questions. But whilst a sensible regulator could take a minimalist view of the extent to which commercial decisions made by platforms should be interfered with,
allowing government to distance itself from taking full responsibility over the fine detailing of this proposed scheme is a dangerous principle. It takes conversations about how to police the internet out of public view and democratic forums. It
enables the government to opt not to create a transparent, judicially reviewable legislative framework. And it permits DCMS to light the touch-paper on a deeply problematic policy idea without having to wrestle with the practical reality of how
that scheme will affect UK citizens' free speech, both in the immediate future and for years to come.
How the government decides to legislate and regulate in this instance will set a global norm.
The UK government is clearly keen to lead international efforts to regulate online content. It knows that if the outcome of the duty of care is to change the way social media platforms work that will apply worldwide. But to be a global leader,
DCMS needs to stop basing policy on isolated issues and anecdotes and engage with a broader conversation around how we as society want the internet to look. Otherwise, governments both repressive and democratic are likely to use the policy and
regulatory model that emerge from this process as a blueprint for more widespread internet censorship.
The House of Lords
report on the future of the internet, published in early March 2019, set out ten principles it considered should underpin digital policy-making, including the importance of protecting free expression. The consultation that this White Paper
introduces offers a positive opportunity to collectively reflect, across industry, civil society, academia and government, on how the negative aspects of social media can be addressed and risks mitigated. If the government were to use this
process to emphasise its support for the fundamental right to freedom of expression - and in a way that goes beyond mere expression of principle - this would also reverberate around the world, particularly at a time when press and journalistic
freedom is under attack.
The White Paper expresses a clear desire for tech companies to "design in safety". As the process of consultation now begins, we call on DCMS to "design in fundamental rights". Freedom of expression is itself a framework, and
must not be lightly glossed over. We welcome the opportunity to engage with DCMS further on this topic: before policy ideas become entrenched, the government should consider deeply whether these will truly achieve outcomes that are good for
Ministers are facing a growing and deserved backlash against draconian new web laws which will lead to totalitarian-style censorship.
The stated aim of the Online Harms White Paper is to target offensive material such as terrorists' beheading videos. But under the document's provisions, the UK internet censor would have complete discretion to decide what is harmful, hateful or
bullying -- potentially including coverage of contentious issues such as transgender rights.
After MPs lined up to demand a rethink, Downing Street has put pressure on Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright to narrow the definition of harm in order to exclude typical editorial content.
MPs have been led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said last night that while it was obviously a worthwhile aim to rid the web of the evils of terrorist propaganda and child pornography, it should not be at the expense of crippling a free Press and
gagging healthy public expression. He added that the regulator could be used as a tool of repression by a future Jeremy Corbyn-led government, saying:
Sadly, the Online Harms White Paper appears to give the Home Secretary of the day the power to decide the rules as to which content is considered palatable. Who is to say that less scrupulous governments in the future would not abuse this new
I fear this could have the unintended consequence of reputable newspaper websites being subjected to quasi-state control. British newspapers freedom to hold authority to account is an essential bulwark of our democracy.
We must not now allow what amounts to a Leveson-style state-controlled regulator for the Press by the back door.
He was backed by Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the Tory Party's powerful backbench 1922 Committee, who said:
We need to protect people from the well-documented evils of the internet -- not in order to suppress views or opinions to which they might object.
In last week's Mail on Sunday, former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale warned that the legislation was more usually associated with autocratic regimes including those in China, Russia or North Korea.
Tory MP Philip Davies joined the criticism last night, saying:
Of course people need to be protected from the worst excesses of what takes place online. But equally, free speech in a free country is very, very important too. It's vital we strike the right balance. While I have every confidence that Sajid
Javid as Home Secretary would strike that balance, can I have the same confidence that a future Marxist government would not abuse the proposed new powers?
And Tory MP Martin Vickers added:
While we must take action to curb the unregulated wild west of the internet, we must not introduce state control of the Press as a result.