The UK is set to unveil new measures against the spread of harmful and violent content on the internet.
The Online Harms white paper, set to be released on Monday morning by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, introduces a new independent regulator for social media companies, file hosting sites, and other companies which host content.
These companies will be required to ensure that they restrict the spread of harmful content on their platforms, and to abide by a mandatory “duty of care” statute.
These “online harms” are defined as content which is violent, encourages suicide, contains disinformation, is cyberbullying, or results in children accessing inappropriate material.
The new regulator is looking to enforce these rules with threats of substantial fines, blocked access to sites, and the potential to impose liability on executives of these companies.
“The tech giants and social media companies have a moral duty to protect the young people they profit from,” Home Secretary Sajid Javid said in a statement.
The measures have been supported by child protection charities in the UK, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which welcomed punishments for companies which fail to act.
“For too long social networks have failed to prioritise children’s safety and left them exposed to grooming, abuse, and harmful content,” NSPCC CEO Peter Wanless said in a statement.
Regulation of internet companies has been on the cards for governments around the world, given the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the spread of misinformation, the latter of which Singapore intends to rein in with its proposed fake news bill.
The livestream and the subsequent dissemination of the Christchurch terrorist attack video has sped up legislation in Australia, which last week rushed in laws threatening fines and jail time for companies which fail to “expeditiously” remove extreme violent content.
These laws were criticised for the speed in which they were implemented, and the potential impacts it has on censorship. It’s these concerns which have been mirrored with the UK proposal by freedom of expression organisation, Index on Censorship.
“The online harms white paper will set the direction for future internet regulation,” Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship, said in a statement online on Friday.
The organisation said the UK’s “duty of care” element encourages companies to restrict and remove content, and a wide definition of “online harms” could hamper freedom of expression.
“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over.”
“Index is concerned that protecting freedom of expression is less important than the government wanting to be seen as ‘doing something’ in response to public pressure,” Hyvarinen added.
“Internet regulation needs a calm, evidence-based approach that safeguards freedom of expression rather than undermining it.”
For the UK government, which has already signalled its intention to regulate internet companies, it doesn’t believe tech has done enough to combat harmful content.
“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over. Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough,” Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said in a statement.
“Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However those that fail to do this will face tough action.
“We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business and our proposals for new laws will help make sure everyone in our country can enjoy the Internet safely.”