In a whitepaper released in April 2019, the UK government outlined its plans to deal with the rising presence of harmful content online. The plan is to impose sanctions on platforms, namely ones like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, to prevent them from hosting content adjudged to be harmful – be it terrorist related, indecent images of children, trolling or otherwise.
What has so far been proposed so far, though, is a one-size-fits-all approach that has left people scratching their heads. There is an ambiguity to the whitepaper, which has been penned by Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright and Home Secretary Sajid Javid, that arguably raises more questions than it answers. On the surface, everything looks fine and dandy – “Our vision is for a free, open and secure internet” all sounds very well indeed – but once you navigate past the negligible niceties, the waters get much murkier.
It’s the first of those three words that is coming under the hardest line of questioning. How much freedom will remain on the internet once these plans have been implemented? If the whitepaper is to be taken at its word, not very much.
The sanctions that have been proposed start with financial punishment, penalising the platforms based on their income. Beyond that, they move on to asking third parties to disrupt a platform’s business activities – for example, stopping the platform from appearing in search results or in social media posts. Last but by no means least, repeat offenders will be confronted with the most totalitarian of the penalties – internet service provider blocking, simply preventing users from reaching the offending platforms through UK internet servers.
It’s all very serious stuff, then. There is no doubt that something has to be done about what can be found and viewed on our online platforms and social media networks, not least because the age restrictions on these sites can be as low as 13 years old. Although it’s an issue that has been bubbling under the surface for a while now, instances like this year’s Christchurch attacks being livestreamed on Facebook have brought concerns into the limelight and, as a result, the UK government are determined to be trailblazers.
The result of this, however, is a document that is far from convincing. Wright and Javid explain the creation of a new independent regulatory body that will impose these new restrictions, but it fails to address how it will distinguish between platforms and publishers. The former, which social media networks currently fall under, are simply there to host user-generated content, while the latter are organisations that create the content themselves. To what extent can we hold tech conglomerates accountable for what people are doing with their lives? It’s akin to blaming the road for every car crash that occurs.
It is essentially removing the freedom which the government are, supposedly, striving to protect. This becomes even more of a concern when you read that the new restrictions will apply to “social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines” – yes, that’s messaging services. To what extent platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger will be affected is yet to be clarified, but the mere mention of it causes concerns to deepen.
While action certainly needs to be taken on many of the so-called “online harms”, the plans outlined in the whitepaper seem to be wide of the mark. While the suggestions isn’t quite as drastic as what has been happening in India, blocking access to particular platforms that repeatedly offend is a totalitarian approach that contradicts a basic human right – freedom of expression. There is a fine line to be tread, and the government’s latest plans haven’t failed to stay balanced.