The Center for Data Innovation submitted comments in response to the open consultation on the “Online Harms White Paper,” published in April 2019 by the UK government, which calls for a new regulatory framework for online safety.
Our response addresses a number of selected questions, through which we argue that despite the paper’s intent to promote free speech, and to make the UK both the world’s safest space to be online and the best environment for digital businesses to grow and innovate, if implemented, this proposal would restrict legitimate online content without due process, hurt digital businesses, limit access to information and, by creating state regulation of speech, damage freedom of expression for millions of users.
In particular, there are three main problems with the proposal. First, the definition of “online harms” is too broad, and by including content and activity such as trolling or disinformation, it would outlaw content that is generally protected speech in Western democracies.
Second, the scope covers Internet companies of all types, from social media platforms, file hosting sites, and public discussion forums, to messaging services and search engines. As a result, the proposed framework will impose liability on companies for content they may only be hosting, caching, or transmitting. This proposal’s vague definition and overly broad scope will expose companies to greater uncertainty in the online environment. In addition, the paper proposes to impose severe sanctions in case of non-compliance, including personal and criminal liability on senior management. As a result, companies will significantly err on the side of caution—with self-censorship and slower innovation as consequences.
Third, the paper proposes to create a regulatory body—an online sheriff—in charge of regulating content and activity on the Internet. Affording a single authority the power to unilaterally define a code of conduct for online speech and enforce these rules is a dangerous threat to access to information and free speech because of a lack of check and balance in a decision-making process that will have a far-reaching impact. In addition, although this regulator would be taking a “proportionate approach,” the paper fails to describe what this would mean in practice. Finally, the paper does not clarify if this regulator would have a strong commitment to safeguarding freedom of expression.
Policy proposals aiming at regulating the Internet often reflect policymakers’ crusade to “fix” it, as though the Internet were the cause of all harms, and lack consideration for the realities of the online ecosystem. The recent series of controversial attempts by EU policymakers and EU member states to implement rules for the Internet, such as the EU copyright directive, the EU online terrorist content proposal, the German law on hate speech, and the French law on disinformation, should have inspired others to take a more cautious approach. Unfortunately, the “Online Harms White Paper” published in April 2019 by the UK government, has not.