UK steps up global crackdown on social media

In extreme cases individual company directors could be fined and companies may be prevented from operating on its territory

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright

Britain unveiled plans on Monday to vastly increase government oversight of social media companies, with a first of its kind watchdog that could fine executives or even ban companies if they fail to block content such as terrorist propaganda or images of child abuse. The British plans would create a statutory “duty of care” for social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to protect people who use their sites.

The plan, which includes an independent regulator funded by a levy on internet companies, will be open for public comment for three months before the government publishes draft legislation.

“No one in the world has done this before, and it’s important that we get it right,” Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright told the BBC. He also added that Britain will consider imposing financial penalties similar to those in the European Union’s GDPR, which permit fines of up to 4% of a company’s annual worldwide revenue.

In extreme cases, the government may also seek the power to fine individual company directors and prevent companies from operating in the UK.

The move comes as concerns mount globally over how to monitor internet material without stifling free speech. Criticism of social media sites has, in particularly, grown amid concerns that extremists like the so-called Islamic State group or far-right political groups are using them to recruit young people, pedophiles are using the technology to groom victims and young people are sharing dangerous information about self-harm and suicide.

Thus, many countries - not only those in Europe, but also Australia and New Zealand - have signaled they are willing to take on the tech companies to block harmful content and prevent extremists from using the internet to fan the flames of hatred by giving regulators more power.

Australia, for example, last week made it a crime for social media platforms not to quickly remove “abhorrent violent material.” The crime would be punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 10.5 million Australian dollars ($7.5m), or 10% of the platform’s annual turnover, whichever is larger. After the March 15 mosque shootings that killed 50 and wounded of 50 more, New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner wants his country to follow Australia’s lead.

Meanwhile, EU lawmakers voted on Monday on a legislative proposal requiring internet companies to remove terrorist content within one hour of being notified by authorities, or face penalties worth up to 4 percent of revenue if they don’t comply. The bill has been controversial, with some lawmakers and digital rights groups criticising the one-hour rule. They say it places a much bigger burden on smaller internet companies than on tech giants like Facebook and Google, which have greater resources.

Furthermore, critics say the end result could be that Google and Facebook end up becoming the web’s censors. Others suggested the rules could stifle innovation and strengthen the dominance of technology giants because smaller firms won’t have the money to comply with such regulation.

“We worry that this attempt at controlling the Internet will entrench big tech players, stymie innovation, and lead to press censorship through the back door,” the London-based Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank, said in a statement.

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