The UK government is considering new legislation that would force technology companies to keep users of their platforms safe from abuse.
The Online Safety Bill would force companies such as Facebook and Twitter to regulate the content shared on their platforms. It would also provide Ofcom with new powers of regulation, in a bid to stamp out behaviours described as currently being “legal but harmful” – everything from online bullying and abuse, to advocacy of self-harm and spreading misinformation.
There would also be a requirement for social media sites to moderate content from different political viewpoints equally and without discrimination. Additionally, new provisions would be introduced to tackle online scams.
England’s Children’s Commissioner and the NSPCC have already come out in favour of the new legislation, as have a number of MPs, following the murder of David Amess. They have claimed that such regulations would make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
However, not everyone is in support of the bill, with some calling it a ‘censor’s charter’, whilst others cast doubt on whether Ofcom is a suitable candidate to take on such a role.
Among the critics is MP David Davis, who argued that tech companies would err too much on the side of caution if faced with fines running into the millions of pounds. As such, he concluded, any potentially controversial issues would be suppressed and the effect on freedom of speech would be “chilling”.
Those querying Ofcom’s involvement suggest that current plans would strip the regulator of much of its independence. Instead, its strategic priorities would be directed by the Secretary of State – which is more typical of repressive regimes than western democracies.
There are further issues around exemptions for journalistic content. IT lawyer Graham Smith wrote on his Cyberleagle blog: “”If you want to carve out the press, how do you do so without giving the government (or Ofcom) power to decide who does and does not qualify as the press? If a state organ draws that line, isn’t the resulting official list in itself an exercise in press regulation?” The report on this draft bill is due to be handed back to the government on 10 December, after which it will be formally introduced to parliament.