Annabel Denham

The Tories’ bid to police the internet is a big mistake

Today, a Government in dire need of a good news story has mooted legislation resulting in the very opposite. The Conservative manifesto from 2017 said:

‘Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.’

Now the Tories are delivering on their promise. But their attempt to police the internet should worry us all. The ‘Online Harms’ white paper calls for an independent watchdog to write a ‘code of practice’ for tech companies. Under the plans, tech firms will be held accountable for what their users post and share, and penalised if they fail to take down offending content swiftly – a move that presents a serious threat to innovation, competition and free speech.

Today’s paper describes a collection of loosely-related problems that are created or facilitated by the internet, varying from the legitimate (child abuse images) to the poorly-defined (online disinformation and ‘trolling’), and suggests strong enforcement powers to prevent them. This is deeply sinister. And the loose language with which the Government has set out these new plans looks like a thinly-veiled threat to the tech giants. (As an aside, is there a more Orwellian phrase than the paper’s ‘Online harms’?)

The white paper forces platforms to become judges. Even for the biggest tech firms, this is patently beyond their capacity. The proposals could also lead to these firms being encouraged to simply delete substantial quantities of content rapidly when in doubt of its legality. This will be the obvious solution for social media companies inevitably struggling to determine what is actually illegal, satirical, or harmful but legal speech.

Britain need only look to Germany to see how these plans are likely to end in failure. The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, a law aimed at combating fake news, which requires large platforms to take down ‘obviously illegal’ content within 24 hours of notification or face fines up to £44m, is an example of how damaging legislation can be.

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