Thursday 19 November 2020 4:02 am

In harm’s way? The government’s plan to protect us online could break the internet

Daniel Dyball is UK executive director at Internet Association

In the coming days, it is likely that the government will signal the direction it plans to take on its journey to enhance the regulatory framework for content on the internet. 

As we wait to assess the details in the final response to the Online Harms White Paper, it is important to take a step back and look at the situation as it stands. 

The internet has transformed the nature of our economy, communities and wider society — overwhelmingly for the better. And amid the chaos wrought over the past year, one thing has been very clear: technology will continue to be key to both maintaining our economy and society through these uncertain times and driving the UK forward as we look to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Efforts that might potentially limit such a vital technology should be approached carefully.

Let’s be clear, the internet sector shares the government’s ambition to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. To that end, companies already work hard to ensure that they protect users from harm on their services. 

The context here is important. On any one day, around 700,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook, 500 million new Tweets are added, and 65 billion WhatsApp messages are sent. 

Faced with that scale of content, internet companies have invested millions of pounds in state-of-the-art AI and content moderation systems, not to mention human teams, as well as working with groups across the globe to tackle illegal content rapidly. 

So far in 2020, for example, internet companies removed hundreds of millions of pieces of harmful content from their platforms — and in the overwhelming majority of cases did so before users reported it or saw it. 

Internet companies also support balanced, proportionate regulation which helps keep people safe online, and which also maintains the intermediary liability protections that have ensured the sector delivers significant benefits to the economy, our communities and wider society. 

Nobody is expecting or hoping for a free-for-all devoid of regulation — but getting this right is crucial.

From what we know of the government’s proposals in their current form, there are a number of areas that will put the UK’s thriving digital sector at risk and create a worse experience for everyone online. 

First, there is a risk that bringing into scope “anywhere online that users can interact with each other” will inadvertently drag millions of ordinary people into this regulatory framework unnecessarily. Forums for parents or football fans, hotel review sites, and much more would all be included — a move that puts all of these sites under impossible strain. 

There is also a risk that, in practice, the only way to meet many of the demands of the new obligations will be through companies monitoring every single user post. The internet has flourished in part because platforms permit users to post and share information without fear that the platforms themselves will be held liable for third-party content.

Most concerning  is the risk of the damage that these proposed measures could inflict on the UK digital sector, especially startups, micro-businesses and SMEs — slowing innovation at the very time we need it most. Entrepreneurs would be forced to spend more of their funding on compliance and legal costs instead of creating new products or delivering a better customer experience.

The government has spent time and effort getting to the position we are in today — and the internet sector has sought to engage constructively at every stage of the process. We suggested clear regulatory principles, submitted responses to consultations, and have been willing to listen and provide answers to some of the challenges presented to us all. 

But as things stand, there is still further to go to make sure these plans deliver what is needed and do not undermine our shared aims.

The internet sector is committed to working with the government and the rest of society to deliver a system of regulation that protects UK internet users — while ensuring that we can carry on producing significant benefits for the economy and society. But for those objectives to be realised, regulations will have to be drawn carefully. 

Otherwise, the damage done to the UK itself — consumers, businesses, and communities alike — could outweigh the online harms these proposals seek to guard against.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.