Businesses disagree about whether the new proposed online harms law is a threat to freedom of expression and innovation or necessary to rein tech titans and to keep the web safe
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The government has some problems with the internet. Over the past few years the UK’s leadership have waged a war against some online content. Whether it’s by announcing a porn ban that has yet to snap into action or lamenting the rise of fake news, British politicians seem set on changing the way the world wide web operates. The latest salvo in the campaign is the proposal of a new legislation aimed at preventing “online harms.” However, not all startups are big fans of it.
The proposed legislation is a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Home Office introducing sweeping measures to tackle “online harms.” This catch-all term encapsulates an extensive list of disreputable behaviours and crimes including sexual abuse of children, hate crime, terrorism, modern slavery, promotion of female genital mutilation, contempt of court, encouraging or assisting suicide, disinformation, revenge porn, extreme porn, harassment, cyberstalking and cyberbullying.
The law hold any business, big or small, accountable for any harmful content on its site. It would cover any company which enables “users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online.” While businesses like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would clearly be affected, smaller messaging apps, forums and file hosting sites could also have a “duty of care” and must take “reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services.”
The government is also suggesting the introduction of a regulator to enforce the new regulations. While still deciding what powers the regulator would have, it’s apparently toying with the idea of issuing fines, blocking access to sites and imposing liability on individual senior members of companies. In theory, Mark Zuckerberg could therefore be held accountable for failing to prevent the spread of fake news or hate speech on Facebook. “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over,” digital secretary Jeremy Wright summed it up.
The announcement on Monday April 8 also kicked off a 12-week consultation period for the government’s Online Harms White Paper, which further outlines the government’s ideas.
No one should be surprised about the plans. After all, the government has argued along these lines for years. For instance, as home secretary, Theresa May tried to convince social media platforms to limit the access to the platforms for trouble makers after the 2011 London riots. While seemingly very little came out of this push, her successor Amber Rudd amped up the effort.
During her tenure as home secretary, she continuously urged tech titans to do more to tackle extremism, terrorism and gang-related crimes by either blocking it from being posted at all or at least explicitly say this kind of material was forbidden on their platforms. On several occasions, Rudd also advocated for the introduction of a backdoor into messaging platforms like WhatsApp so authorities could more easily prevent terrorism.
Even though she left office in 2018, her successor Sajid Javid has taken up the mantle and said he’s not afraid to take action against tech giants if they fail to prevent sexual abuse of children.
Commenting on the new proposed law, the home secretary said: “The tech giants and social media companies have a moral duty to protect the young people they profit from. Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online. That is why we are forcing these firms to clean up their act once and for all.”
Despite the government’s ambition to protect people, many from Britain’s entrepreneurial ecosystem are pessimistic. “It's bad news for startups,” says Sam Dumitriu, research director at think tank The Entrepreneur Network, when speaking with Elite Business. By introducing sweeping measures like these, he believes the government risks limiting entrepreneurs’ ability to dream up new concepts as they’d fear “constant litigation.” “The government's plans present a serious threat to innovation, competition and free speech,” he suggests.
Alex Pridding, regulatory account manager at broadbandchoices, fears it could also affect how new companies grow. “The punishment of a fine, being named and shamed and possibly closed down might deter startups from going digital at the risk of harmful content finding its way to their site,” he says.
These sentiments are shared by Dom Hallas, executive director of The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec), the lobby group for UK startups. “Everyone, including British startups, shares the goal of a safer internet but these plans will entrench the tech giants, not punish them,” he says. Yet, that is exactly what Dallas believes will happen with the new proposals as they will ‘cover not just social media but virtually the entire internet – from file sharing to newspaper comment sections.”
And according to the Coadec director, this will leave startups without the financial muscles of the tech titans exposed. “Those most impacted will not be the tech giants the government claims [it’s] targeting but everyone else,” he argues. “It will benefit the largest platforms with the resources and legal might to comply and restrict the ability of British startups to compete fairly. There is a reason that Mark Zuckerberg has called for more regulation. It is in Facebook’s business interest.”
Research Coadec conducted last year revealed that 86% of UK investors believe the legislation attacking the big boys would end up hurting the little guy. [There’s] a real risk of the big companies getting bigger and British startups suffering,” he continues, encouraging the government to take the UK’s startups and scaleups’ interest under consideration during its consultation.
Still, some business leaders welcome the proposal. “This is an important step forward for the industry and will make brands and social platforms take their duty of care responsibility more seriously,” says Tamara Littleton, founder and CEO at The Social Element, the social media agency, when speaking with Elite Business. According to her, these suggestions haven’t come a moment too soon. “Too many companies build new apps and platforms and then worry about safety,” Littleton argues. “You wouldn’t build a house without appropriate fire doors and safety measures so why build a company in such a cavalier fashion.”
Similarly, David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab UK, the cybersecurity company, welcomes the initiative to make top executives accountable. “There have been countless instances of people’s lives being negatively affected by harmful online content,” Emm says. “Given the amount of people using these platforms on a daily basis, social media companies must take stricter measures towards protecting consumers’ online safety. This white paper is a step forward in the right direction.”
Moreover, Georgia Shriane, senior associate at specialist tech law firm Boyes Turner, believes the concerns raised about the law affecting freedom of speech is poppycock. “Arguing that limiting this criminal activity online is somehow an assault on free speech on the internet is to belittle the serious real life harm that can result and to entirely misrepresent what free speech [and] freedom of expression is.”
She adds: “Freedom of expression is recognised as a human right but is not an absolute right and is widely accepted as being limited by conflicting rights others may have to protect their rights [like for instance with personal safety] and reputation, [think about] libel or privacy laws in some jurisdictions.”
With 12 weeks before the deadline, the government better take all sides of the argument under consideration and make the most for British startups.