The UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport proposed a new watchdog that will oversee tech giants, with the threat of sanctions for executives and big fines for breaches of rules.

Websites that don’t properly deal with online “harms” – like terrorist content or child abuse – could be fined or even blocked, under the proposed new rules. The rules, which come in the form of a code of practice, are the product of a number of factors, according to the authors of the DCMS white paper.

“In the wrong hands the internet can be used to spread terrorist and other illegal or harmful content, undermine civil discourse, and abuse or bully other people,” the white paper says. “Online harms are widespread and can have serious consequences.”

The report also notes the recent terrorist attack in New Zealand, which was streamed live on Facebook and then spread like wildfire across the internet, despite the best efforts of the authorities, victims’ families and websites themselves, as an example of harmful content online.

Some companies, the paper says, “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.”

An internet regulator

So, what does the report say should be done? First, it says that we should move “far beyond” self-regulation. The implication is clearly that the big tech companies – the really huge ones, which attract a lot of media and regulator attention – have not taken enough responsibility for the content that goes on their platforms.

And, it says, this is the first attempt at regulation of this kind. “Although other countries have introduced regulation to address specific types of harm, this is the first attempt globally to address a comprehensive spectrum of online harms in a single and coherent way,” the report says.

A point that the report’s introduction makes alludes to a common criticism of regulation; that it will hinder progress and innovation. It is a fairly classic economic argument – leave businesses free to pursue profit how they choose, and the market will see to the rest. Of course, the world doesn’t work like that, and we need regulation. But, every time a new regulation is suggested, critics often leap up to say that it will blocked innovation in the market.

And those critics are unlikely to be pleased by comments made by Jeremy Wright, the UK’s Culture Secretary. He told the BBC that fines could be in a similar region to those imposed by the GDPR, which can go up to 4% of annual global turnover. “We think we should be looking at something comparable here,” he said.

Noting the importance of the technology sector to the UK economy, the report goes on to say that “innovation and safety online are not mutually exclusive; through building trust in the digital economy and in new technologies, this white paper will build a firmer foundation for this vital sector. As a world-leader in emerging technologies and innovative regulation, the UK is well placed to seize these opportunities,” it says.

The debate

That debate has raged in the aforementioned world of privacy, too. The GDPR, which got masses of press when it was put in place in May last year, was argued by some as being a seriously painful piece of regulation to comply with.

In the end, most companies agreed that the GDPR is broadly a good thing, although there’s a lot left to be worked out. It’s had such an effect that many other countries, including the US, have considered or even implemented copycat legislation.

But there’s another element to the DCMS’s plans for internet regulation. Though most of the tech giants gave lukewarm statements about working with the regulator on any future issues, think-tanks and NGOs did not hold back in their criticisms. In particular, they said that the rules could stifle free speech.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said in a statement, as per the BBC, that “the government’s proposals would “create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens””.

And Matthew Lesh, from the Adam Smith Institute, said that 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,” he said. “At a time when Britain is criticising violations of freedom of expression in states like Iran, China and Russia, we should not be undermining our freedom at home.”

These are clearly strong statements and show the depth of feeling when it comes to the content that we share and display via online platforms. The responsibilities of the tech world continue to grow.

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