New government plans propose to block and potentially ban websites that fail to take considerable action against “Online Harms”. These include child abuse, revenge pornography, and terrorist propaganda.
First reported by The Guardian, this proposal comes from The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), in cooperation with the Home Office, proposing a “code of practice” for tech companies and social media networks overseen by an independent watchdog.
Failure to comply with this code could result in financial penalties for the offending firm. More so, this can extend to company executives and outright blocks of websites.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said: “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over.”
Social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, have been under consistent pressure to provide stricter enforcement strategies with issues such as “Fake News”, online abuse, and the spread of violent content at the forefront of concern.
Twitter Head of UK Public Policy said in a statement: “We look forward to […] working to strike an appropriate balance between keeping users safe and preserving the open, free nature of the internet.”
Public consultation on the plans will run for 12 weeks. Critics of the proposal say that this law overreaches and infringes upon free and open speech. Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute said: “The government should be ashamed of themselves for leading the western world in internet censorship. The proposals are a historic attack on freedom of speech and the free press.”
While instances of revenge pornography and child abuse are coded clearly in law, cited issues such as cyberbullying, trolling, extremist content, coercive behaviour and the spread of disinformation is far more difficult to define, encouraging the government to act as a moral arbiter on content that isn’t illegal, just vaguely defined as harmful – such as what it perceives to be ‘misinformation’.
Laws that crack down on poorly defined infringements are often ripe for political exploitation and unintended consequence, as the French government recently learned.
Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN.com, says: “The government is absolutely doing the right thing by trying to address how the internet can facilitate hate crimes and child abuse,
“However its proposed methods – especially proposals to force ISPs to block sites the government doesn’t like – have disturbing parallels with the censorship tactics employed by authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia,
“This is a dangerous precedent to set for a country that supposedly champions free speech.”
However, Home Secretary Sajid Javid said social media companies have a moral duty “to protect the young people they profit from”. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) describe the internet as “the Wild West” in need of regulation. Shadow Culture Secretary for the Labour Party Tom Watson backed the suggestions, but argued it did not go far enough to tackle “dark digital advertising campaigners and fake news.”
There appears to be a coordinated strategy from the UK Conservative Party in order to push this regulatory agenda; in a recent Twitter video Prime Minister Theresa May echoed the Culture Secretary and the Home Secretary’s words when stating: “The era of social media firms regulating themselves is over,” arguing, “it’s time to keep our children safe.” She also promoted the hashtag #OnlineSafety.