The UK government may be in swivel eyed bewilderment regarding Brexit, but last week proved it has not completely lost the plot. Last Monday it announced ambitious plans for the UK to be the global leader of internet regulation.

The publication, titled ‘Online Harms White Paper’, outlines how the government proposes to effect online regulation. The legislation is primarily directed at social media platforms, search engines, public discussion forums, online messaging services and file-hosting sites.

What is wrong?

Although the white paper acknowledges the ‘significant benefits’ of the internet it also acknowledges there is manipulation and illegal / unacceptable online content too. For example, social media groups themselves have been discovered manipulating content according to their interests, terrorist groups and gangs have been spreading propaganda and there are concerns for some users’ psychological well-being too, especially children.

Why is the UK government championing this effort?

In terms of investment in technology the UK is a global leader – it is top in Europe (more capital investment in tech than Germany, France and Sweden combined). The UK therefore has a vested interest in this sector’s future and it wants to get the online regulatory framework right. The white paper states ‘The UK’s future prosperity will depend heavily on having a vibrant technology sector. Innovation and safety online are not mutually exclusive… this White Paper will build a firmer foundation for this vital sector.’

What are the main proposals?

There will be a statutory ‘duty of care’ to make online providers take responsibility for the safety of their users and there will also be an independent regulator to enforce compliance.

The independent regulator will have a ‘suite of powers’ at its disposal such as ‘substantial’ fines and the ability to impose personal liability on senior management. It will also be able to require online providers to produce Annual Transparency Reports outlining the existence of harmful content on their platforms and for them to explain what measures they are taking to address it. These reports will also be made public. The regulator will also have the powers to require any additional information it needs – including the use of algorithms for selecting the content that appears in front of users.

How effective will this be?

It’s likely to be effective in the UK as the proposals are seemingly robust and will apply to all online providers including the largest and most influential. To regulate the global online giants though there would have to be meaningful international collaboration too. This will require the same international standards, the same international penalties and likely an international overseer too. This will be complicated and so it might be some way off but, given their efforts, the UK government is likely to be the harbinger that brings it about.

Being proportionate is the key to success with this though. Although regulation is likely needed to address any serious issues (by users or providers alike) it must not detract from the right to free speech nor interfere with the requirements/enjoyments online users have. As long as the approach is both permissive and protective then this could be a welcome development.