Social media giants including Facebook and Twitter face the threat of fines if they fail to take down harmful content such as images of child abuse and material inciting violence, under a crackdown launched in the U.K.
The UK government plans to give broadcast regulator Ofcom a role as internet watchdog, with power to fine companies if they fail to protect British users from harmful content.
"We share the Government’s ambition to keep people safe online and welcome that it is minded to appoint Ofcom as the online harms regulator. We will work with the Government to help ensure that regulation provides effective protection for people online and, if appointed, will consider what voluntary steps can be taken in advance of legislation," said Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom's interim Chief Executive.
The move is part of plans to protect children and vulnerable people online and give consumers greater confidence to use technology.
Under Wednesday’s proposals, which would place a duty of care on Internet companies:
- Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly and minimize the risk of it appearing, with particularly robust action on terrorist content and online child sexual abuse.
- The UK government will ensure Ofcom has a clear responsibility to protect users’ rights online. This will include paying due regard to safeguarding free speech, defending the role of the press, promoting tech innovation and ensuring businesses do not face disproportionate burdens.
- To protect freedom of expression, the regulations will not stop adults from accessing or posting legal content that some may find offensive. Instead companies will be required to explicitly state what content and behavior is acceptable on their sites in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently.
- The regulation will only apply to companies that allow the sharing of user-generated content - for example, through comments, forums or video sharing. Fewer than 5 per cent of UK businesses will be in scope.
- Ofcom will provide guidance to help businesses understand whether the services they provide would fall into the scope of the regulation. Business-to-business services which pose a low risk to the general public will not be in scope. A business simply having a social media presence does not necessarily mean it will be in scope.
The UK government will set the direction through legislation, but decisions on processes and procedures will be taken by Ofcom. This will mean regulation is flexible and can adapt to the rapid emergence of new harms and technologies. It will be up to Ofcom to monitor new and emerging online dangers and take appropriate enforcement action.
The government will publish a full consultation response in Spring 2020.
The European Commission is also gearing up to overhaul liability rules for platforms, with a proposal due by the end of the year.