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UK's tough new internet rules are 'blunt tool'

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
A visitor stands in front of the Instagram stand during Dubai Lynx 2019 at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images

Tough new rules proposed by the UK government to regulate online tech giants have been criticised as a "blunt tool" by a non-profit that campaigns for internet freedom.

On Monday, the UK published its long-awaited Online Harm white paper, which called for the world's first online safety rule that would place a "duty of care" on tech companies to protect users.

“We have to expect that the duty of care will end up widely drawn with serious implications for legal content that is deemed potentially risky, whether it really is [or] not,” Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said in a statement. The Open Rights Group is a charity that campaigns for internet freedom.

“The government is using internet regulation as a blunt tool to try and fix complex societal problems. Its proposals lack an assessment of the risk to free expression and omit any explanation as to how it would be protected,” Killock said.

The new rules are meant to tackle terrorist radicalisation, cyber bullying, incitement to suicide, and disinformation, among other things.

“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.

“We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe.”

The requirement, which are the first of their kind globally, will be enforced by an independent regulator. Senior managers at tech companies could face prosecution if they fall short of the new standards. Companies could also face fines or be blocked by internet providers.

Monday marked the start of a 12-week consultation on the rules before they progress to the legislation stage.

The new proposals come after high profile cases such as that of Molly Russell, the British 14-year-old who committed suicide after posting and viewing images related to self-harm and depression on Instagram.

An undated family handout photo of Molly Russell, 14, who took her own life in November 2017. Photo: Press Association

“I welcome the White Paper published today and I am pleased to see the Government finally putting into action its promises to hold tech companies and social media platforms to account by introducing an independent regulator,” Ian Russell, who now runs the Molly Rose Foundation in memory of his daughter, told the Press Association.

“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over,” digital secretary Jeremy Wright said.

“Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough. Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However those that fail to do this will face tough action.”

While the Open Rights Group raised concerns about the proposals, children’s welfare campaigners and charities have welcomed the new rules.

”This is a hugely significant commitment by the Government that once enacted, can make the UK a world pioneer in protecting children online,” NSPCC CEO Peter Wanless said in a statement.

“The Government’s announcement today is a very important step in the right direction,” Javed Khan, the CEO of children’s charity Bernardo’s, said. “We particularly welcome proposals for a new independent regulator, which should ensure internet bosses make the UK one of the safest places in the world for children to be online.”