Social media giants face fines in planned U.K. online crackdown
LONDON – The U.K. government is planning to crack down on damaging internet content on social media platforms, which could face fines for failing to prevent activities such as child exploitation and incitement to violence.
The government is “minded” to give broadcasting regulator Ofcom a role as the new Internet watchdog, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement on Wednesday. The proposals will be fleshed out in coming months, and a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that the regulator is likely be given the power to fine companies such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. if they fail to protect U.K. users from harmful content.
“We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve,” Morgan said in the statement.
The U.K. is trying to get to grips with ungoverned areas of the internet as it increasingly dominates modern life and exposes children in particular to harmful experiences, including abuse, bullying and terrorist material.
The announcement risks inflaming tensions with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has already pushed back against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to roll out in April a digital services tax to target internet giants as international efforts to devise a global solution drag on.
The latest proposals, which would place a duty of care on internet companies, add to a series of measures U.K. authorities are already taking. As well as the digital services tax plan, last month, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham unveiled a code of conduct designed to protect children’s data online so they’re less exposed to damaging content.
But so-called online harms represent one of the trickiest areas to regulate because of the vast amount of material that gets posted daily on social media sites, as well as the need to strike a balance between protecting free speech and determining what content needs to be removed.
Implementation of the plan will fall to Melanie Dawes, a civil servant at the Ministry of Housing who Ofcom announced on Wednesday will take up the role of Chief Executive Officer in early March. The regulator’s interim CEO, Jonathan Oxley, issued a statement saying Ofcom shares the government’s “ambition to keep people safe online.”
“We will work with the government to help ensure that regulation provides effective protection for people online and, if appointed, will consider what voluntary steps can be taken in advance of legislation,” Oxley said.
The U.K. lags behind Europe in tackling hate speech online. In 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government started enforcing the continent’s toughest law aimed at reducing hate speech and fake news — threatening to fine the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube as much as €50 million ($55 million) if they failed to delete illegal posts.
The British government last year unveiled a white paper outlining possible measures it could take on the matter, and calling for feedback.
Among the ideas mooted in the white paper were to give regulators the power to levy “substantial fines” on companies that don’t heed “clear standards” or can’t show they are meeting their duty of care to their users. While those fines aren’t part of Wednesday’s announcement, more detailed proposals and legislation will follow later in the year and are expected to include such measures, according to the person familiar.
Andy Burrows, head of online policy at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, told BBC radio on Wednesday his charity wants to see fines of as much as 4% of global turnover in the most egregious cases.
“That has to be accompanied as well by, we think, a combination of criminal sanctions,” he said. “They should apply both to the tech platforms as corporate entities, but we also think it’s hugely important that we see a named director scheme, where named directors have the responsibility for upholding that duty of care.”