Facebook and Twitter could face ‘substantial fines’ under U.K.’s planned new rules on harmful online content

February 12, 2020, 12:07 PM UTC

The U.K. 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 broadcast regulator Ofcom a role as internet watchdog, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement on Wednesday. The proposals are yet to be fleshed out, but the regulator is likely be handed the power to fine companies such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. if they fail to protect U.K. users from harmful content, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“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.

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 the danger of harmful experiences, including abuse, bullying and terrorist material.

The announcement risks inflaming tensions with the U.S., which has already pushed back against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to impose a digital services tax on Internet giants as efforts to devise an international solution drag on.

Under Wednesday’s proposals, which would place a duty of care on Internet companies:

  • Online platforms must minimize the risk of illegal content appearing, especially terrorist content and online child sexual abuse; they must also remove illegal material quickly
  • Ofcom will safeguard free speech and defend the role of the press
  • Adults won’t be stopped from accessing or posting legal content that some may find offensive
  • The rules will only apply to companies that allow the sharing of user-generated content such as comments, videos or forums; less than 5% of U.K. businesses are expected to be affected

The plans add to a series of steps U.K. authorities are already taking. As well as the digital services tax plan, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham unveiled a code of conduct last month which is designed to protect children’s data online so they’re less exposed to damaging content.

Balancing Act

Harmful content represents one of the trickiest areas to regulate because of the vast amount of material 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 said Wednesday will become the regulator’s chief executive officer in early March. Interim CEO Jonathan Oxley said the regulator 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.

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 euros ($55 million) if they fail to delete illegal posts.

The European Commission is also gearing up to overhaul liability rules for platforms, with a proposal due by the end of the year.

‘Substantial Fines’

The British government outlined possible measures it could take on the matter last year and called for feedback.

Among the ideas mooted were giving 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.”

Both the main opposition Labour Party and the Tory Member of Parliament who heads the House of Commons committee scrutinizing Morgan’s department said the government isn’t doing enough.

Tracy Brabin, Labour’s culture spokeswoman, said the proposals are “long overdue” and it’s “shameful” they’re only an initial plan, while Julian Knight, who was elected chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last month, said the proposal “fails to demonstrate the urgency that is required.”

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