Making the internet safer, especially for children and vulnerable individuals, is a decidedly noble pursuit. Doing so, however, would certainly be a considerable undertaking, and not without significant ethical, legal, and societal concerns.
In an ambitious effort to make the internet a safer place for people to interact and communicate, the UK government has laid out an extensive framework for how it would go about executing its vision for a safer internet through increased regulations. These regulations would be aimed at companies that operate online and would require them to take responsibility for protecting their users from certain “online harms” such as hate speech, terrorism, violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, self-harm, cyber-bullying, and even trolling.
Under the proposals, any company found to be in violation of the regulations and in breach of its “duty of care” would risk significant fines, criminal charges against executives, and in the most extreme cases, disruption of business practices and ISP blocking. The government’s proposal suggests that an as yet undetermined independent regulatory entity would be tasked with enforcing the regulations and ensuring that internet companies are in proper compliance.
While the ultimate objective of making the internet a safer place to be is something most would be apt to support, some of the broader implications inherent in the proposed legislation as it stands could lead one to give pause and contemplate what potential unintended consequences may emerge as a result of increased regulation. For instance, a major concern would be the broad nature of what the regulation classifies as “online harms” and the wide jurisdiction the government affords the independent regulatory body to determine what is and what is not acceptable on the internet in the UK. Although the architects of the proposed regulation steadfastly uphold that their vision for a safer internet will preserve the ideals of freedom of expression and a free and open internet, a single regulatory entity commissioned to rule on permissible online content may not always be as objective and impartial as one would expect it to be. Where would the regulatory body draw the line between what could be universally considered harmful content and what is not? Would this give regulators the authority to censor certain voices that they may not necessarily agree with? The proper balance needs to be struck between protecting the safety of internet users while at the same time protecting the ideals of free speech, innovation, and the free and open internet.
Another concern is that although the proposal indicates a commitment not to infringe upon the private communications of internet users by not requiring companies to monitor private channels for illegal content, the government is still consulting on providing a clear definition of what would be considered a “private channel” and how the regulations should apply to them. Perhaps lawmakers are doing their due diligence in properly classifying and protecting private online communication channels, but the fact that they are being unclear about how the regulations would apply to private communication is disconcerting. For the privacy-conscious, half-baked notions on privacy in such a sweeping proposal for a safer internet will set off alarm bells.
British Prime Minister Theresa May stated in a blog post that she wants the UK to be “the safest place to be online”, and suggested that online companies haven’t been doing enough to regulate themselves, which in turn provides the impetus for the proposed legislation. May went on to stress that the UK is “leading the way on this internationally.” Indeed, the UK government’s vision in creating a safer internet includes the hope that other countries follow suit and that the legislation will spur the creation of “a global coalition of countries all taking coordinated steps to keep their citizens safe online.” As it stands, however, the proposals clearly lack the required focus and clarity to be applied effectively and imitated on a global scale.
Ultimately, the drive to make the internet a safer place to be is all well and good, just as long as it doesn’t amount to censorship or an invasion of personal privacy.