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The UK wants to police social media with new ‘online safety’ laws

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Future legislation will target a ‘range of harms,’ from cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation

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The UK wants to introduce new legislation that tackles “the Wild West elements” of the internet, particularly social media. Culture and digital minister Matt Hancock said on Sunday that new laws would be introduced “in the next couple of years” that would aim to curb a range of legal and illegal online harms, from cyberbullying to child sexual exploitation.

The legislation would be the latest attempt of the UK’s Conservative government to exercise more control over online spaces. In 2016, the party introduced new surveillance laws, mandating (among other things) that ISPs store a record of every citizen’s browser history. Other efforts have been less successful. Calls to break end-to-end encryption in services like WhatsApp seem to have fizzled out, while legislation introducing age checks on all porn sites has been delayed (though it will likely be up-and-running by the end of 2018).

In a statement regarding future legislation, Hancock stressed the importance of protecting children. “People increasingly live their lives through online platforms so it’s more important than ever that people are safe and parents can have confidence they can keep their children from harm,” he said. “The measures we’re taking forward today will help make sure children are protected online and balance the need for safety with the great freedoms the internet brings just as we have to strike this balance offline.”

UK Government Ministers Attend First Cabinet After Re-shuffle
Matt Hancock, UK secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, is leading the push for new legislation.
Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

There are no details on what form the legislation will take, but the government is currently working on a White Paper to be published later this year that will provide more information. Possible measures include fines for sites that don’t remove terrorist content fast enough (as in Germany) and age verification for all social media platforms. Hancock also suggested that the UK’s upcoming Data Protection Bill — which lets the government fine companies up to 4 percent of their global turnover — could be a model for enforcement.

In an interview with the BBC, the digital and culture secretary stressed that letting social media companies police themselves had failed, and noted that internet firms had not responded to a recent request from the UK government to discuss future legislation. “The fact that only four companies turned up when I invited the 14 biggest in gave me a big impetus to drive this proposal to legislate through,” said Hancock.

When only four of 14 companies respond to your request, it does look embarrassing. But for the UK government, it’s further proof that new laws are needed to redress this power imbalance, turning humiliation into legislation.