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Technology

Britain joins social media crackdown after livestreamed New Zealand attack

FILE - In this April 18, 2017 file photo, conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Faceb
The U.K. for the first time on Monday proposed direct regulation of social-media companies, with senior executives potentially facing fines if they fail to block damaging content such as terrorist propaganda or images of child abuse.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

The United Kingdom joined a growing global backlash against technology companies such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., proposing fines and bans if social-media platforms fail to curb illegal activity.

The government outlined plans for an industry-funded regulator that would police the technology companies’ platforms for harmful content, such as incitement to terrorism and child sexual exploitation. The move is part of a push to hold the companies accountable, and fines for breaches of the new law could reach as high as 4% of global turnover, Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

“There is an acceptance that some form of regulation on social media is inevitable,” Wright said on Monday. “Companies will be subject to internet rules wherever they are.”

The U.K. plan follows steps by Australia, the European Union and others to increase scrutiny of tech companies that until now have largely avoided any form of industry regulation. Last week, Australia passed legislation that included potential prison sentences of up to three years for executives who fail to remove abhorrent material from their platforms.

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In the U.K., too, enforcement powers could go as far as imposing liability on individual company managers. The government laid out the proposals as it opened a 12-week consultation Monday.

European lawmakers are also voting Monday on removal rules for online terrorism content, part of a broader EU effort to make platforms increasingly liable for what their users post.

The U.K. proposal wasn’t universally welcomed. The Institute of Economic Affairs, a pro-market research group, labeled the plans “draconian” and more likely to do harm than good by holding back innovation. Giving the government power to dictate what content is appropriate sets a dangerous precedent, Director General Mark Littlewood said.

Following the March 15 mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead, Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube faced worldwide condemnation for failing to take down quickly a video livestreamed by the alleged gunman.

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Damian Collins, a member of the U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, cited the New Zealand terrorist attack as a reason for introducing regulation.

“A regulator should have the power to investigate how content of that atrocity was shared and why more was not done to stop it sooner,” he said.

The U.K.’s proposed laws will apply to any company that allows users to share or find content or interact with each other online, such as social-media platforms, file-hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines.

Other proposals outlined by the government include a code of practice that could include requirements to minimize the spread of misleading information, and an annual transparency report on harmful content.

Even in the home country of Facebook and Google, opposition has been growing. After a plethora of congressional hearings, a bill that would have restricted online political advertising lost steam when its sponsor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), died. But U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) has sued Twitter, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, last week complained Facebook has too much power.


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