The UK government is finalizing plans to establish the nation's first internet regulator. The new office is being drafted by the UK Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and will have the power to hold tech companies accountable for content published on their platforms and to penalize those who fail to promptly remove illegal content.
In documents obtained by Buzzfeed News, UK ministers want to introduce a mandatory code of practice for social media platforms to follow which will set hard rules, such as how long illegal material is allowed to be online before the platform is at fault and liable for not bringing it down.
The internet regulator will also be able to inflict more punitive measures on platforms which host terrorist, child abuse or hate speech content as well as outline new guidelines for other forms of online content and behavior.
The UK Conservative Party had first announced the possibility of an internet regulator while campaigning during the UK's 2017 general election. In the party's manifesto they wrote, "Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree."
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The UK already has Ofcom, a regulatory body which monitors broadcasters, telecoms and postal communications and the new internet regulator will be of a similar vein. There are also plans to institute a new online advertising regulator who will work in tandem with the internet regulator.
These developments have stemmed from the UK governments vocal frustration with the inability or unwillingness of tech firms to react appropriately in a voluntary capacity to what the government views as unacceptable online behavior. "The boundaries between broadcasting and the online world are being redrawn," commented Sharon White, the head of Ofcom. "This has implications for the public’s understanding of what protections apply online, versus traditional media."
She went on to argue that "certain principles from broadcasting regulation could be relevant as policymakers consider issues around online protection".
However, the government has faced criticism and doubt around whether it will be able to enforce regulations on predominantly US companies. Many are also worried that regulators may overreach and penalize content arbitrarily, potentially infringing on free speech.
In response to similar concerns brought up by Buzzfeed News, a spokesman from the government said it plans to unveil more detailed plans later in the year: "This winter we will publish a White Paper, setting out new laws to tackle the full range of online harms and set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe.
"We are considering all options, including what legislation will be necessary and whether a regulator is needed," they added.