The UK government has taken the next step in its grand policymaking challenge to tame the worst excesses of social media by regulating a broad range of online harms — naming the existing communications watchdog, Ofcom, as its preferred pick for enforcing rules around ‘harmful speech’ on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in future.
Last April the previous Conservative-led government laid out populist but controversial proposals to legislate to lay a duty of care on Internet platforms — responding to growing public concern about the types of content kids are being exposed to online.
Its white paper covers a broad range of online content — from terrorism, violence and hate speech, to child exploitation, self-harm/suicide, cyber bullying, disinformation and age-inappropriate material — with the government setting out a plan to require platforms to take “reasonable” steps to protect their users from a range of harms.
However digital and civil rights campaigners warn the plan will have a huge impact on online speech and privacy, arguing it will put a legal requirement on platforms to closely monitor all users and apply speech-chilling filtering technologies on uploads in order to comply with very broadly defined concepts of harm — dubbing it state censorship. Legal experts are also critical.
Further, it requires social media companies to *prevent* ‘harmful’ (undefined) speech going online in the first place; & prevent ‘inappropriate’ (undefined) content recommendations.
So expect state-sponsored upload filters, recommendation systems & mass surveillance.
— Big Brother Watch (@BigBrotherWatch) February 12, 2020
The (now) Conservative majority government has nonetheless said it remains committed to the legislation.
Today it responded to some of the concerns being raised about the plan’s impact on freedom of expression, publishing a partial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper, although a draft bill remains pending, with no timeline confirmed.
“Safeguards for freedom of expression have been built in throughout the framework,” the government writes in an executive summary. “Rather than requiring the removal of specific pieces of legal content, regulation will focus on the wider systems and processes that platforms have in place to deal with online harms, while maintaining a proportionate and risk-based approach.”
It says it’s planning to set a different bar for content deemed illegal vs content that has “potential to cause harm”, with the heaviest content removal requirements being planned for terrorist and child sexual exploitation content. Whereas companies will not be forced to remove “specific pieces of legal content”, as the government puts it.
Ofcom, as the online harms regulator, will also not be investigating or adjudicating on “individual complaints”.
“The new regulatory framework will instead require companies, where relevant, to explicitly state what content and behaviour they deem to be acceptable on their sites and enforce this consistently and transparently. All companies in scope will need to ensure a higher level of protection for children, and take reasonable steps to protect them from inappropriate or harmful content,” it writes.
“Companies will be able to decide what type of …read more
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