Friday 12 February 2021 9:57 am

Screenshot: Should online harms laws take on the hackers and pirates?

This week

**Media Moment of the Week: Ya boi in Hanoi

**Who’s taking on the online hackers and pirates?

**Will Big Tech finally cough up for news?

Media Moment of the Week: Ya boi in Hanoi

Tempted as I was to feature *that* cat lawyer this week, I think perhaps, to borrow Michael Gove’s words, this country has had enough of Zoom fails. Instead, here’s some viral internet cringe of the sort we all thought had gone extinct somewhere in the vicinity of 2014.

Seemingly oblivious to the anachronism, US ambassador to Vietnam Dan Kritenbrink decided to release a rap video featuring some of the most killer lyrics ever to grace the diplomatic service. Cringe-inducing? Absolutely. But also strangely endearing.

Who’s taking on the hackers and pirates?

It was April 2019 when former prime minister Theresa May first set out plans for online harms laws, kicking off a regulatory crackdown on tech firms and encumbering the political lexicon with yet another insipid buzzword. Almost two years have elapsed, and we’re still waiting to find out exactly what these new laws will look like.

The priority is clear — the new regulation is aimed at cracking down on the circulation of toxic material such as child abuse, terrorism and hate speech online, as well as curbing disinformation. It’s a welcome move and a key step in reigning in the Wild West of online discourse. Now, though, disgruntled victims of Big Tech have a new question: Should these measures be extended to economic harms?

The most pressing issue is cyber crime. We’re not talking here about sophisticated cyber attacks, rather the lower-level scams and fraud that have forever plagued the internet (but have become even evident during the pandemic). Cloned websites, fake celebrity endorsements and investment scams are just a few of the online crimes that cost consumers an estimated £2.1bn last year. PIMFA, which represents firms that provide investment management and financial advice, this week urged the government to extend the definition of online harms to cover these offences.

Then there’s music streaming, the subject of an ongoing (and somewhat fraught) parliamentary inquiry. Geoff Taylor, head of record label body BPI, this week told MPs that the online harms legislation should also protect rights holders from piracy, a crime that continues to bedevil the music industry, albeit to a lesser degree than in the dark days of the early noughties.

There is, it must be said, a whiff of opportunism about these protests — a sense that industries are trying to hitch their wagon to the lumbering steamroller that is online harms regulation. Ministers have been clear that the new laws are focused on protecting individuals from user-generated content, while other issues such as online fraud and competition concerns will be tackled elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the issue of economic harm drills down to the same fundamental problem: Tech firms have failed to take responsibility for the material posted to their platforms. It also highlights the difficulty in drawing the line between personal and economic harm in a world that has become ever more dominated by Big Tech. Some concerns, such as fixing the online ad market, are clearly better suited to the separate competition crackdown on tech firms. For others, though, it’s hard to argue that an economic harm is not also a personal one.

The government has already spent a long time consulting on online harms laws, and is unlikely to change tack now. But as pressure mounts over economic harm, ministers will be under close scrutiny to make sure the hackers and pirates don’t slip through the net.

Will Big Tech finally cough up for news?

There was further regulatory reckoning in the air this week as attention turned to Big Tech’s failure to cough up for news content.

Facebook was the first to take pre-emptive action, rolling out its dedicated news feed in the UK at the end of last month. Google quickly followed suit, announcing licensing agreements with British publishers this week.

The deals will see the tech giants pay major news outlets such as the Telegraph, Financial Times and Sky News, as well as regional publishers and magazines, when news stories appear on their platforms. For some of the major players this is expected to bring in millions of pounds in new revenue, for others the recompense is the prospect of higher ad revenue or increased subscriptions.

The moves are undoubtedly a boost for news publishers, especially at a time when the pandemic has put a squeeze on ad revenues. But for all the duopoly’s worthy talk of investing in journalism, these arrangements are, in reality, a fairly meagre handout aimed at staving off tougher new rules enshrined in law.

In Australia, that process is already underway, with proposals in place to force tech platforms to pay publishers for news. The EU this week hinted it could expand its upcoming digital laws to include similar measures. Naturally, all eyes will be on the Competition and Markets Authority to see if similar laws could be introduced in the UK to address a digital advertising market that has been branded “dysfunctional” by peers.

The response from the tech titans has been swift and uncompromising. Google has threatened to withdraw its search engine from Australia if the laws are introduced, while Facebook said it will stop users from sharing news in the country. But the prospect of similar laws in the EU make the duopoly’s threats seem rather less convincing. After all, while Google could afford to pull out Down Under, it’s hard to see the tech giant chopping off the bloc.

The algorithm recommends:

  • BBC editorial director Kamal Ahmed has been made redundant as part of a major overhaul of the board, leaving the Beeb temporarily in breach of its own diversity rules.
  • Microsoft reportedly approached Pinterest over a potential takeover deal after the US tech giant’s Tiktok bid was scuppered by Oracle.
  • Future, which publishes mags including Country Life and Four Four Two, has approved a new pay policy that could see its chief executive take home £40m. Investors aren’t happy
  • Vue boss Tim Richards has been named as the new chair of the BFI. Here’s my look at how the UK film and TV industry has handled the pandemic.

Got a story? Drop me a line at or on Twitter

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.