UK Government Pledges To Tackle “Wild West” Internet

After tech firms snub government meeting, UK culture secretary pledges legislation to rein in social networking firms

The British government has pledged it will tackle “the Wild West elements” in the online world, with new laws for social networking firms.

This was the position from Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock, speaking on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, presented by Emma Barnett on Sunday.

It comes after Hancock admitted that only four of 14 tech firms invited to talks with the government had actually bothered to show up.

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Social laws

The new laws for social networking firms proposed by Hancock were prompted by the no show from the tech industry to talks over the matter.

“The fact that only four turned up gave me a big impetus to drive this legislation through,” Hancock said. “Until now there’s been this argument: work with the companies, do it on a voluntary basis, you’ll do more that way because the lawyers won’t be involved.”

But Hancock clearly believes that this self-policing approach has not worked, and now he intends to push through legislation on the matter. The new laws will be created to “make sure that the UK is the safest place in the world to be online.”

The government has also published an Internet Safety Strategy consultation.

So what proposals are being considered?

Well, it seems that Hancock wants to enforce anti-bullying or harassment rules, and impose the same types of financial penalities as those in the data protection bill. This could potentially mean millions of pounds for big name tech firms such as Facebook or Google.

Hancock also wants to fine social media companies that fail to prevent under-13s from signing up for accounts. It comes amid estimates that half of all children aged 11-13 are on Facebook or another social media platform.

Online harm

“The Government has been clear that much more needs to be done to tackle the full range of online harm,” said the government.

“Digital technology is overwhelmingly a force for good across the world and we must always champion innovation and change for the better,” said Hancock in a statement. “At the same time I have been clear that we have to address the Wild West elements of the Internet through legislation, in a way that supports innovation. We strongly support technology companies to start up and grow, and we want to work with them to keep our citizens safe.”

“People increasingly live their lives through online platforms so it’s more important than ever that people are safe and parents can have confidence they can keep their children from harm,” he added. “The measures we’re taking forward today will help make sure children are protected online and balance the need for safety with the great freedoms the internet brings just as we have to strike this balance offline.”

The DCMS and Home Office will jointly work on a White Paper with other government departments, to be published later this year.

This will propose the legislation to tackle issues such as cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation.

Long overdue?

“The Government will be considering where legislation will have the strongest impact, for example whether transparency or a code of practice should be underwritten by legislation, but also a range of other options to address both legal and illegal harms,” it said. “We will work closely with industry to provide clarity on the roles and responsibilities of companies that operate online in the UK to keep users safe.”

“We have long seen the harm that online can bring to children’s lives, our own child sexual abuse services saw a 38 percent increase last year in children referred,” said Barnardo’s CEO, Javed Khan. “Online can be a force for good, but the ease of exploitation of children must be tackled.”

“We urge Government in the White paper to consider legislation that ends the era of technology self-regulation and puts children’s safety at the heart of the online world,” Khan said. “Taking action now is vital to protect the next generation of children.”

The government will have its work cut out for it. In March for example, the government confirmed that its implementation of age verification checks to access online porn had been delayed until the end of the year.

The proposed age check system had been intended to be enforceable by April this year, and it was designed to stop children from accessing online pornography.

But confusion surrounded the issue, with websites employing differing techniques. The owner of popular porn websites including PornHub for example said that its online age verification tool (AgeID) would be used to verify the age of people seeking online smut.

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