UK Now Proposes Ridiculous Plan To Fine Internet Companies For Vaguely Defined 'Harmful Content'

from the what-the-what? dept

Last week Australia rushed through a ridiculous bill to fine internet companies if they happen to host any "abhorrent content." It appears the UK took one look at that nonsense and decided it wanted some too. On Monday it released a white paper calling for massive fines for internet companies for allowing any sort of "online harms." To call the plan nonsense is being way too harsh to nonsense.

Theresa May herself announced the plan in a video that she posted to the very same social media she insists is harmful to children, because consistency is not a strong point of people looking to shackle the internet:

If you watch that video, she literally pulls out a "but think of the children" argument, insisting that social media must be tamed into stopping "harmful" content. Of course, what she leaves out is that most of the "harmful" content she's upset about is perfectly legal. And, much of it is available not just via social media. But, don't worry about that: this is all about a moral panic around social media.

The plan would result in massive, widespread, totally unnecessary censorship solely for the sake of pretending to do something about the fact that some people sometimes do not so nice things online. And it will place all of the blame on the internet companies for the (vaguely defined) not so nice things that those companies' users might do online.

The basic plan is the kind of nonsense people come up with when they don't have the slightest clue how the internet (or human beings) actually work. It would establish a new regulator who would come up with a "code of practice" for internet companies (broadly defined) requiring them to have a "duty of care" to magically stop basically any (ill-defined) bad behavior online. The regulator could then massively fine any internet company that breaks its nonsense rules. The rules appear to be totally vague and would require blocking "harmful content" even if it's perfectly legal just because someone says its bad. Failure by companies (after being fined) to wave a magic wand and stop bad stuff online could lead to full site blocking by ISPs to access such sites.

There are so many bad ideas packed into this white paper, it's legitimately difficult to know where to start. But, let's start with this. Among the content that will not be allowed is trolling. Really.

Cyberbullying, including trolling, is unacceptable. Being bullied online can be a deeply upsetting experience, particularly for children or other vulnerable users.

How will internet companies be forced to deal with trolling (which is not at all defined in the paper). Well, apparently the new regulator will "set out steps that should be taken" to "tackle cyberbullying." What does that actually mean? Who the hell knows.

There's also a special section about preventing people from saying mean things to public figures. Seriously.

As set out in Box 14, those involved in public life in the UK experience regular and sustained abuse online, which goes beyond free speech and impedes individuals’ rights to participate. As well as being upsetting and frightening for the individual involved, this abuse corrodes our democratic values and dissuades good people from entering public life

Basically, if you're famous, the UK wants to force internet companies to stop anyone from ever being mean to you. Poor famous people.

And, of course, there's a whole "fake news" section, which ignores how basically every anti-fake news law is actually being used to censor government critics.

Companies will need to take proportionate and proactive measures to help users understand the nature and reliability of the information they are receiving, to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation and to increase the accessibility of trustworthy and varied news content.

At the same time, the very same section says that companies also have to have some sort of bogus "fairness doctrine" to promote diverse viewpoints:

Promoting diverse news content, countering the ‘echo chamber’ in which people are only exposed to information which reinforces their existing views.

What if the information countering the echo chamber is bogus propaganda and disinformation? Well, then this part of the law would seem to contradict itself. Good luck sorting it out everyone!

Also no longer allowed: any depiction of violence or glamorization of weapons.

Violent content ranges from content which directly depicts or incites acts of violence, through to content which is violent with additional contextual understanding or which is harmful to users through the glamorisation of weapons and gang life.

As far as I can tell, war films would no longer be allowed under this rule. Or boxing matches. Or, really, something like this:

Of course, that's not all. The report includes a table of "online harms" which is broad and without much in the way of definition:

If that seems vague, it's by design. And, they make it clear that anything else can be added at any time:

This list is, by design, neither exhaustive nor fixed. A static list could prevent swift regulatory action to address new forms of online harm, new technologies, content and new online activities.

Yeah, that's an open invitation to censorship.

And, no this is not just targeting large sites. As UK lawyer Graham Smith points out, under the terms of the proposal, any internet blog with comments is subject to the law. It literally says this in section of 4.2:

There are two main types of online activity that can give rise to the online harms in scope or compound their effects:

  • Hosting, sharing and discovery of user-generated content (e.g. a post on a public forum or the sharing of a video).
  • Facilitation of public and private online interaction between service users (e.g. instant messaging or comments on posts).

And, of course, as Thomas Baekdal points out, blaming the internet companies is completely ridiculous in this situation. The law doesn't apply to other sources of similar content, such as UK news companies (so long as they don't have comments on their stories), even if they post the exact same content. As Baekdal notes, more people saw video clips of the Christchurch massacre when various UK tabloids published those clips than those who watched it on Facebook. But the law applies to Facebook, not the UK tabloids.

Again, that's because this is a moral panic and an attack on internet companies, not anything resembling sensible thoughtful policy.

Not surprisingly, the report also uses dodgy "facts" to support the need for such a ridiculous law. In the "foreward" to the report, written by MPs Jeremy Wright and Sajid Javid (a guy who's been spewing nonsense about the internet for years), the following claim is made:

Two thirds of adults in the UK are concerned about content online, and close to half say they have seen hateful content in the past year

The first part is nonsense driven by fear mongering by the media and the likes of Javid. It's meaningless to say people are concerned if the facts don't actually support any reason for them to be concerned. But that second part is even more head-scratching. Graham Smith has asked the government for a source for that stat, but appears to suspect that it comes from a ridiculously misleading Ofcom study where the "harmful" content includes "spam emails," "targeted advertising," "bad language" and "offensive language."

This is pure moral panic. And it will do a few horrible things. First, it will destroy the internet industry in the UK. London had built itself up as a digital hub, but should this law go into effect, that will almost certainly limit any growth potential for the firms there. Second, it will lock in the dominance of Google and Facebook, because who else can deal with this kind of crap. Finally, it will lead to massive censorship. And, basically everyone knows this.

...critics from across the political spectrum have warned the legislation could also threaten freedom of speech. Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “The government’s proposals would create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens. We have to expect that the duty of care will end up widely drawn, with serious implications for legal content that is deemed potentially risky, whether it really is nor not.”

Privacy International noted that this plan will "introduce, rather than reduce, "online harms." Index on Censorship seems similarly concerned:

“The implications for ordinary internet users have not been considered. If you introduce a duty of care, especially in combination with the risk of fines, it creates a very strong incentive for online platforms to remove and restrict content, and this is really going to impact on free speech rights and the right to information for millions of ordinary internet users in the UK, and it’s also going to set an example internationally.”

And, of course, as Reason points out, reporters who love to hate the big internet companies seem to be cheering on this censorship plan because they like anything that looks like it "harms" the big internet companies.

This is the same mess we keep seeing over and over again. Lots of people are mad about stuff on the big internet sites... and are responding by attacking those companies (not the cause of the bad stuff on those platforms), and doing so in ways that will lead to massive censorship, less freedom, and which will only serve to lock in the big internet companies, as no one else will be able to deal with any of the proposed regulations.

Filed Under: censorship, duty of care, harmful content, intermediary liability, internet, uk


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2019 @ 9:19am

    Re: Re: Re: "Ridiculous" in headline means wri

    Wow ... a self contradictory comment all in one sentence.


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