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UK finally runs out of patience with internet players

The UK Government has unveiled a public consultation which may well see stricter rules placed on the digital giants as the era of the wild-west internet draws to a close.

To date the internet giants have largely been unregulated. This was fine when everyone admired the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon, though numerous scandals have exposed the darker side of the internet economy. Many might have seen the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos as friendly folk, out to democratize technology, though the underlying business model has shocked many, forcing slumbering politicians into action.

Today, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office have jointly launched a new public consultation on proposals which will aim to introduce a new regulatory body to govern the internet economy and create a ‘duty of care’ mandate to ensure online safety and tackle illegal and harmful activity, as well as creating a rulebook suitable for the digital economy. The new body will have the power to hand out fines should any of the internet players fall short of expectations.

“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over,” said Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright. “Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough. Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However, those that fail to do this will face tough action.”

The new regulator, and the soon to be created rules, will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online. Those platforms who do not meet expectations will either have sites blocked or face significant fines. One of the questions which the consultation will look to answer is whether the new regulatory body should be part of an existing department, or a newly formed body which would be funded through a levy placed on the sales of the internet companies in the UK.

While this is a necessary step forward, this is going to be a very complicated process. Creating a mechanism which protects users but also maintains the principles of free speech is a delicate equation to balance. We suspect there will never be a situation where all parties are satisfied, such are the complications when dealing with opinions; who should be the judge on what is offensive and what is acceptable?

Ultimately, this is a move which is long overdue. Social media companies, such as Facebook, have slipped between the regulatory red tape for years, fitting nicely into the grey area between ‘platform’ and ‘publisher’. While these services might have started as a platform, they have certainly evolved beyond that, however, it would not be just to designate them as publishers; they are not content creators as such. A new definition is needed and only then can rules fit for the digital era be created.

Change is on the horizon, and it is unavoidable for the internet economy. That said, the lobby machine will soon be taken up a gear to attempt to minimize the impact of any new rules. Numerous European nations are swiftly moving forward to create more accountability, and the internet players will have to change their game-plan from offensive to damage limitation.

That said, the internet players have been given enough chances to clear up their act over the last few years. These are companies which have operated without the severity of the red-tape restraints of other segments, partly because governments have not understood how these businesses operate, but this era of self-regulation is drawing to a close.

“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online,” said Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

“That is why we are forcing these firms to clean up their act once and for all.”

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