The UK government feels it’s time to take on the internet and regulate the parts it which it feels are damaging to society.

As a result, the Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP (Secretary of State for Digital, Home Secretary Culture, Media and Sport) and Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP (Home Secretary) have combined to come up with the Online Harms White Paper, which sets out the government’s plans for internet regulation.

The Vision

The government hopes to achieve the following:

  • A free, open and secure internet.
  • Freedom of expression online.
  • An online environment where companies take effective steps to keep their users safe, and where criminal, terrorist and hostile foreign state activity is not left to contaminate the online space.
  • Rules and norms for the internet that discourage harmful behaviour.
  • The UK as a thriving digital economy, with a prosperous ecosystem of companies developing innovation in online safety.
  • Citizens who understand the risks of online activity, challenge unacceptable behaviours and know how to access help if they experience harm online, with children receiving extra protection.
  • A global coalition of countries all taking coordinated steps to keep their citizens safe online.
  • Renewed public confidence and trust in online companies and services.

What Problems Does This Paper Seek To Tackle?

  • Illegal content and activity that threatens national security or the safety of children.
  • Abuse and bullying that may undermine democratic values and debate.
  • Harmful content that’s particularly damaging to children.
  • Terrorist propaganda and radicalisation.
  • Child sex offenders and child sex abuse.
  • Disinformation promoted by hostile actors.
  • The promotion of gang culture, weapons and violence.
  • Harassment, bullying and intimidation of vulnerable groups.

How Does It Plan To Tackle These Problems?

  • It will establish a new statutory duty of care that companies must comply with to maintain the safety of their users and deal with harmful content.
  • Creation of an independent regulator to enforce the rules.
  • The regulator will take a risk-based approach to the problem, dealing first with the companies that pose the greatest risk.
  • Set clear standards that help companies ensure the safety of users.
  • Force companies to provide annual transparency reports outlining the prevalence of harmful content on their platforms and what countermeasures they are taking to address these.

What Companies Will Be Affected?

  • Companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online, so we’re talking about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and their ilk.

What Punishments Can The Regulator Dish Out?

  • ‘Substantial’ fines based on a percentage of a company's turnover and the seriousness of its regulation breaches.
  • Disruption of the business activities of non-compliant companies, perhaps forcing third-party companies to withdraw any services they provide to non-compliant companies.
  • Measures to impose liability on senior managers of such companies. This would certainly mean civil liability and possibly criminal liability too.
  • Blocking of non-compliant content and/or companies (ISP blocks).

Provisos

The above is to be achieved whilst:

  • Paying due regard to innovation.
  • Protecting users’ rights online.
  • Not infringing privacy or freedom of expression.
  • Not policing truth and accuracy online.
  • Compliance with the EU’s e-Commerce Directive.

Opinion

It’s hard to argue with the general aims of this white paper but, as always, the devil’s in the detail. Achieving the right balance between regulations and freedoms (as mentioned in the ‘Provisos’ above) is usually tricky.

There are many potential pitfalls here. I’ll leave it up to you decide whether governments are generally good at avoiding pitfalls.