Government Publishes Social Media Regulation Plans

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White paper calls for an independent regulator that would write a code of conduct covering illegal or dangerous content – and would have the power to impose huge fines

The government has published plans for an independent regulator that would be capable of imposing huge fines on internet firms that propagate dangerous or illegal content.

The Online Harms White Paper, jointly proposed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office, is a step toward imposing curbs on social media and other internet firms.

It proposes an independent body, either a new regulator or an existing one such as Ofcom, that would create a code of practice for internet firms.

The body would be funded by tech firms themselves, possibly through a levy.

Evil parliament (c) pisaphotography, Shutterstock 2014Accountability

Senior managers could be held personally accountable for abuses under the proposal, which also suggests that companies that don’t comply could be blocked or delisted from search engines .

Culture minister Margot James has suggested that the regulator could impose fines of up to billions of dollars in the case of large tech firms.

Other proposals include an obligation to publish transparency reports about measures to combat harmful content, an obligation to respond quickly to user complaints and a requirement to minimise misinformation during election periods.

The government plans to launch a consultation on the matter on Monday.

Charities have called for such regulations for years, and a number of high-profile incidents in recent months, ranging from massive data breaches to the live-streaming of the Christchurch shootings in March, have increased pressure on governments to take action.

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport secretary Jeremy Wright said voluntary actions by industry “have not been applied consistently or gone far enough”, while home secretary Sajid Javid said dangerous content “is still too readily available online”.

Freedom of speech

But internet firms and campaigners said the proposals could be harmful to competition and freedom of speech.

Daniel Dyeball, UK executive director of the Internet Association, called for “proposals that are targeted and practical to implement”.

“The scope of the recommendations is extremely wide, and decisions about how we regulate what is and is not allowed online should be made by parliament,” he said.

Freedom of speech campaigners Article 19 said the government “must not create an environment that encourages the censorship of legitimate expression”, and said it opposed any duty of care being required of  internet platforms, arguing that doing so would encourage a restrictive approach to content removal.

Facebook and Twitter both said any new rules should strike a balance between online safety and fostering an innovative digital economy.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently called for standardised international rules that would put all internet firms on a level playing field.

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