The British government said Wednesday it planned to allow its broadcast regulator to police the internet and issue “substantial fines” to social media giants that fail to remove harmful content. Media minister Nicky Morgan told parliament she was “minded to appoint” the Office of Communications (Ofcom) in charge of online content oversight. But she said the expanded agency, dubbed the “first internet watchdog” by UK media, would lack the power to take down offensive material or block platforms that “fail to fulfil their duty of care”.
Those suggestions were outlined in a set of proposals published last April by the government of former prime minister Theresa May. Prime Minister Boris Johnson took over last July and first focused on navigating the Brexit crisis. But Britain safely left the European Union last month and his government is now preparing to stamp its own vision on the country.
Morgan and interior minister Priti Patel published a report offering Ofcom “the power to issue warnings, notices and substantial fines” to social media “companies that fail to fulfil their duty of care”. The two senior ministers stressed they were equally conscious of respecting freedoms of expression and remaining a “pro-technology government”.
“We will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content, nor require companies to remove specific pieces of legal content,” the two senior ministers wrote. “The new regulatory framework will instead require companies, where relevant, to explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites and then for platforms to enforce this consistently.”
No Executive Fines
Ofcom was established in 2002 and began to formally oversee television and radio the following year. It receives thousands of viewer and listener complaints a year about potentially biased or offensive programming and other unsuitable material. But Britain has no official internet or social media regulator and is looking for ways to stop harmful online material from reaching children.
The issue gained added urgency in 2017 when a 14-year-old girl killed herself after following a series of accounts about suicide and depression on Instagram and Pinterest. “Two-thirds of adults in the UK are concerned about content online, and close to half say that they have seen hateful content in the past year,” Wednesday’s report said. “In a large survey of young people who had been cyberbullied, 37 per cent had developed depression and 26 per cent had suicidal thoughts.”
Social media giants such as Facebook want governments to adopt a common rulebook and oversight bodies that could take the pressure off their own executive teams. The UK government has been consulting top social media managers about its proposals for over a year. Britain’s role in drafting a universal solution was boosted by Mark Zuckerberg’s appointment in 2018 of former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg as Facebook’s head of global affairs and communications. Clegg and Zuckerberg are now setting up an oversight board at Facebook that would issue final rulings on contentious content.
The new UK report said social media executives rebelled at the idea of London fining individual managers who failed to tackle harmful content. The proposal was seen as a measure of last resort by May’s media minister. “Senior manager liability emerged as an area of concern,” Wednesday’s report said. “Discussions with industry highlighted the risk of potential negative impacts on the attractiveness of the UK tech sector.”
It said consultations with the broader public showed fears about “excessive enforcement” forcing “companies to over-block user-generated content to avoid penalties”. The government said it will now start drafting corresponding legislation and release more details in the coming months.
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