IN THE SPRING a government’s fancy turns to thoughts of internet regulation. This month alone, Singapore announced a bill to clamp down on fake news, Taiwan said it would ban Chinese-owned video-streaming services and Australia rushed through its parliament a Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill, which among other things seeks to hold tech-company executives personally liable for failing swiftly to take down offensive content.
On April 8th the British government published a 102-page policy paper outlining how it thinks internet regulation should work to reduce what it awkwardly calls “online harms”. It is enormous in scope and hugely ambitious, encompassing any company that allows people “to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online”. That would include not just big social networks but also community forums, review sites, dating apps and much else. The harms covered are similarly extensive, from terrorist material and child abuse to more subjective things such as trolling and disinformation. Some fear it opens the door to censorship of the internet.
To be sure, there is a lot to iron out. The government appears keen to avoid stifling speech, imposing cumbersome regulation on small companies, snooping on private conversations or setting up large-scale monitoring of online traffic. But the paper is vague on how it will achieve its aims of proportional regulation and specific monitoring without infringing on liberties.
Moderating content on the internet has so far been a losing game of whack-a-mole. This was brought home by the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand in March, when a video of the shooting and a manifesto written by the alleged culprit spread rapidly on some of the world’s best-resourced social-media platforms despite efforts to prevent their dissemination. In the case of both copyright and terrorist- or abuse-related material, tech platforms are legally responsible for quickly removing content they find or are made aware of. Yet merely taking down objectionable content ignores the question of how it got there.
Britain’s approach—which it hopes will be adopted elsewhere—is to require companies to design their services in ways that make it harder for bad content to spread in the first place. The big idea is to impose a statutory “duty of care”. Companies must “take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services”. The government will set up a new regulator or hand new responsibilities to an existing one, such as Ofcom, which oversees broadcast media and telecoms, or the Information Commissioner’s Office, the data-protection watchdog. The regulator’s mandate will be broad: publishing guidelines for companies, overseeing complaints, encouraging co-operation between firms and issuing fines, as well as other, harsher penalties, including blocking websites in Britain or holding senior managers personally responsible.
The eventual legislation will have to walk a tightrope between several conflicting imperatives. Maintaining national security and protecting the vulnerable must be balanced against individual liberties. Imposing substantial requirements on big tech companies must not stifle innovation or prevent smaller ones from thriving. And the new law must not conflict with existing British and European rules that protect online platforms from liability for content they simply host. On the last, the government’s plans seem to suggest that, so long as companies live up to their duty of care by designing products in a way that discourages the dissemination of proscribed material, they will remain protected.
Tech firms said they would work with ministers to fine-tune the regulations. They are already resigned to being kept on a tighter leash. Last month Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s boss, called for more internet regulation in an article in the Washington Post. Draft legislation will appear at the earliest in the autumn, and is unlikely to become law for a couple of years. A change of prime minister, a general election or continued parliamentary gridlock around Brexit could see it slip down the agenda. As the policy paper puts it, the government will “bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows”. In the meanwhile, the harms continue to multiply.