Propaganda from terrorist groups, criminal gangs, sexual predators. All of these pose a big threat in real life, and an even bigger threat on social media platforms. And the UK is trying its best to curb the spread of this harmful content.
In an 102 page white paper, the UK put together what it believes to be the basic requirements for everything from ensuring an accurate news environment, to combating hate speech, to stamping out cyberbullying. Officials consider that social media companies need to become much more active in removing and responding to harmful material on their platforms.
The UK isn’t the only one taking a stance on the social media issues. Last year Germany imposed fines of up to $60 million if social media companies don’t delete illegal content posted to their services. After the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, Australian lawmakers passed legislation subjecting social media executives to imprisonment if they don’t quickly remove violent content.
The U.K. plans to take it further than most by proposing the creation of a new regulatory body to monitor a broad array of harms and ensure companies comply.
“I’m deeply concerned that social media firms are still not doing enough to protect users from harmful content,” Prime Minister Theresa May said.
“So today, we’re putting a legal duty of care on these companies to keep users safe. And if they fail to do so, tough punishments will be imposed. The era of social media firms regulating themselves is over.”
The new duty of care has yet to be fleshed out, but U.K. officials offered plenty of suggestions for what they expect a new regulator to include in a code of practice. Officials expect companies to do what they can to “counter illegal content and activity.” That could include requirements to actively “scan or monitor content for tightly defined categories of illegal content” such as or threats to national security, or material that sexually exploits children.
Officials also expect any code of practice to require that social media companies use fact-checking services during elections, promote “authoritative” news services, and generally try to counter the echo chamber in which many users are exposed to viewpoints they already agree with.
If companies don’t comply with the new rules, they could face “substantial” fines – and individual members of the company’s senior management could face personal liability.
This is going to represent a lot for online responsibility, considering that currently online platforms are close to never held responsible for any illegal content that’s being uploaded.
“We cannot allow these harmful behaviours and content to undermine the significant benefits that the digital revolution can offer,” “While some companies have taken steps to improve safety on their platforms, progress has been too slow and inconsistent overall. If we surrender our online spaces to those who spread hate, abuse, fear and vitriolic content, then we will all lose.”said Jeremy Wright, the U.K.’s digital secretary, in a statement accompanying the proposal.
Regulators proposed that the new rules apply to companies that “allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online.” The broad language encompasses “a very wide range of companies of all sizes,” the report said, “including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines.”
Online companies said they supported the idea of ensuring a safer Internet, but noted that they have already poured substantial resources into countering online harms.
“We haven’t waited for regulation, we’ve created new technology, hired experts and specialists, and ensured our policies are fit for the evolving challenges we face online,”Google public policy manager Claire Lilley told TechCrunch.
The proposals are vague and could lead to censorship
TechUK, a consortium of technology companies in the U.K. including Facebook, said in a statement that many of the proposals are too vague.
The duty of care is a deceptively straightforward sounding concept. However it is still not clearly defined and open to broad interpretation,” the group said. “Government will need to clarify the legal meaning and how it expects companies to comply with such a potentially broad obligation which could conflict with other fundamental rights – particularly in relation to private communications on their platforms.”
Berin Szoka, president of the libertarian think tank TechFreedom, cautioned that the proposal “mandates a sweeping system of self-censorship” that could cause companies to “over-censor in order to avoid the wrath of the regulator.” In an e-mail to NPR, Szoka said he worries that such a system could “legitimize the same kind of system in Russia, China and other countries.” Authoritarian governments around the world “will all undoubtedly exploit the UK’s model to justify their own system of censoring content they deem ‘harmful,’ ” he said.