Britain to Create Regulator for Internet Content

FILE -- Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, testifies before a House committee in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Britain on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, introduced a plan that would give the government more latitude to regulate internet content, as part of an effort to force Facebook, YouTube and other internet giants to do more to police their platforms. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

Adam Satariano

c.2020 The New York Times Company


LONDON — Britain on Wednesday introduced a plan that would give the government more latitude to regulate internet content, as part of an effort to force Facebook, YouTube and other internet giants to do more to police their platforms.

The government said the country’s media regulator, known as Ofcom, would take on new responsibilities monitoring internet content and would have the power to issue penalties against companies that do not do enough to combat “harmful and illegal terrorist and child abuse content.”

Left unanswered were many details, including what penalties the new regulator would have at its disposal or how it would keep tabs on the billions of pieces of user-generated content that are posted on the social media platforms.

A proposal circulated by the government last year suggested that the regulator could issue fines, block access to websites and make individual executives legally liable for harmful content spread on their platforms.

The government said further details would be released in the spring.

“We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve,” said Nicky Morgan, the secretary of Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the agency that announced the proposal Wednesday.

The push for tougher regulation shows a divergence from the U.S.-led vision of the internet that is largely market-driven and free of government oversight. In Europe and in Britain, where free speech is more regulated than in the United States, there has been a growing willingness to impose new rules on the web, particularly related to hate speech, terrorism and material targeting children.

In Germany, companies risk fines if hate content is not removed in as little as 24 hours. France is considering a similar proposal. The European Union is also debating changes to laws that protect internet companies from being liable for content posted on their platforms.

Free speech and human rights advocates warned the policies would lead to censorship and be used as a template by more repressive governments.

Europe has been targeting the tech industry for years over growing concerns that U.S. tech giants have too much power and influence. A sweeping privacy law enacted in 2018, called the General Data Protection Regulation, limits what personal information can be collected and shared online. Enforcement of European Union antitrust laws has resulted in billions of dollars in penalties against Google, Apple, Amazon and others for anticompetitive behavior.

Wendy Hall, a computer scientist and professor at Southampton University in England, said the British proposal showed how the internet was fracturing, with different regions adopting different standards. At one end, she said, is the U.S. approach that lacks regulation and is largely market-driven; at the other sits China’s top-down government control and censorship.

Hall said that Europe was attempting to find a middle path, but that democratic governments must tread carefully because judging what is acceptable online is often very subjective.

“There’s not an easy solution if you’re not an authoritarian government,” said Hall, who has served as a government policy adviser on the use of artificial intelligence.

The British proposal is the first step toward building on recommendations that officials introduced last year to regulate the web. The regulations to be debated in the months ahead will apply to internet platforms that carry user-generated content, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Placing Ofcom in charge of internet-content regulation adds to the agency’s responsibilities overseeing Britain’s television networks, radio stations and newspapers, as well as the country’s internet service providers.

Child-protection groups have pushed for the regulations, arguing that too much harmful content is available to young people.

“The government has today signaled they are willing to stand up to Silicon Valley and commit to landmark British regulation that could set a global standard in protecting children online,” Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said in a statement.

In Britain, the handling of the tech industry presents a dilemma. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the sector is critical to the country’s economic future outside the European Union, but his government is also attempting tighter oversight. Antitrust regulators have vowed to clamp down on anticompetitive behavior by big online platforms. And the country’s top privacy regulator is investigating the internet advertising industry.

Many who work in the tech industry are concerned the rules will have unintended consequences, particularly for startups that don’t have the financial or legal resources to navigate a more complex regulatory environment.

“It becomes a moat for them,” said Rob Kniaz, a partner at the venture capital firm Hoxton Ventures in London. “These things always favor the incumbents.”