The U.K. government on Monday proposed sweeping new powers to fine and even block tech companies like Facebook and Google if they fail to address terrorist content or child exploitation material in a timely fashion. If they don’t, the bosses of those companies will face harsh penalties.
The legislation, outlined in a white paper entitled "Online Harms," proposes to introduce a regulator who will oversee a range of online companies, including social media, file-hosting sites, chat forums, messaging services and search engines.
The new watchdog would be funded by the tech industry but have powers of enforcement, including the ability to fine tech companies who do not toe the line, and potentially even block those services entirely in the U.K.
“Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms, and help restore public trust in this technology,” Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement.
The U.K. government said that efforts to get the tech companies to self-regulate had not worked.
“I warned you and you did not do enough,” U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid told the tech companies at a press conference Monday, adding: “To be a bystander is to be complicit.”
The law proposes holding company executives to account directly, meaning the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai could all face punishment.
“We are consulting on powers to issue substantial fines, block access to sites and potentially to impose liability on individual members of senior management,” the government said in its statement.
The exact amount of potential fines has not yet been finalized, but Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright told the BBC that the penalties could be comparable to Europe’s new privacy laws, which can see companies fined as much as 4 percent of turnover.
The U.K.’s move comes days after Australia passed its own sweeping new online law in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, aimed at keeping terror content offline. Australian lawmakers went even further than their British counterparts, threatening executives with up to three years in jail or fines of up to 10 percent of the company’s turnover.
The white paper outlines a number of types of abusive content that are already illegal — terrorist content, child sex abuse, revenge porn, hate crimes — but also some less well-defined categories, such as trolling and cyber-bullying.
The proposal also encompasses fake news, suggesting tech companies may be forced to employ more fact-checkers to combat the issue.
There has been a growing chorus to better regulate massive social media platforms like Google and Facebook — including from the companies themselves — in the wake of numerous high profile data breaches, privacy controversies and seemingly endless incidents of abuse.
But, privacy activists warn that the U.K. risks going down a dangerous path by granting the government the ability to block content based on loosely-defined terms, comparing the move to those implemented in authoritarian regimes.
“[The law’s] proposed methods — especially proposals to force ISPs to block sites the government doesn’t like — have disturbing parallels with the censorship tactics employed by authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia,” Simon Migliano, a digital privacy expert and head of research at Top10VPN.com, told VICE News in an email.
Others pointed out the hypocrisy they saw in the proposed new laws.
“At a time when Britain is criticizing violations of freedom of expression in states like Iran, China, and Russia, we should not be undermining our freedom at home,” Matthew Lesh, Head of Research at free-market think tank the Adam Smith Institute, said in a statement. “Britain will no longer be called a free society if her citizens and her press are directed by the government as to what they can view, think and say.”
Cover: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaving The Merrion Hotel in Dublin after a meeting with politicians to discuss regulation of social media and harmful content. Picture date: Tuesday April 2, 2019.(Press Association via AP Images)