Can the Internet be regulated? It’s a big question. And one that affects anyone who runs a business with an online presence. The government’s Online Harms White Paper, published this week, aims to tackle head-on harmful online activity. It’s a bold move. If the proposals contained in the paper become law, the UK will be one of the first countries across the globe to have introduced such comprehensive regulation of online content.
Some see the plans as a potentially unjustified infringement of the right to freedom of expression. Others believe a scheme that’s limited only to the UK will serve little purpose given the global reach of harmful online content.
At Nath Solicitors in London we believe all businesses should make themselves familiar with these proposals. While the bulk of any final regulations will apply to the big tech players like Facebook and Twitter and search engines like Google, they could represent a significant departure from the way the authorities currently approach online content. And many smaller organisations may well be caught by some of the tighter controls.
The government wants online companies to take more responsibility for the safety of the individuals who use their services. It also wants companies to be answerable for harm caused by content or activity channeled through their services. To do this it is proposing a series of measures, including:
The rules will apply to companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. This would seem to cover almost every service on the internet, including file services, personal blogs, and hosting platforms. It would clearly be impractical for any regulator to monitor online activity to that extent.
The government accepts that to be effective the new regulatory body will have to act proportionately, and take what it labels a ‘ risk-based approach’. In practice this should see the regulator focusing -initially at least – on companies that pose the clearest risk of harm. Risk could stem from either the size of the business or the entity’s track record in publishing harmful material. It’s worth noting that in Germany, to take an example, the Network Enforcement Act (requiring companies to remove certain harmful material within 7 days of a complaint) applies only to platforms with more than 2 million users.
Whatever the level of monitoring, it does look like even small messaging services or companies that run any user generated content at all will technically have to comply with the regulators codes of practices. This is likely to include setting up complaints handling systems and dealing with information requests from the regulator. It certainly won’t be easy for many small companies.
The Online Harms White Paper is only a proposal – a reflection of current government thinking. There’s no guarantee that the suggestions it contains will become law and they could change significantly from their current form. Nevertheless several aspects of the plans are noteworthy:
The response so far of tech giants like Facebook and Twitter to the White Paper has been moderate. They have indicated they want to engage with the government as the new statutory regime is developed and established. As the process intensifies however it’s not hard to see some kickback, particularly in respect of the government proposals for the personal liability of senior managers that we’ve discussed.
To explore any of the issues we have raised or for commercial legal advice generally you can call us on +44 (0) 203 670 5540 or contact us online.
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