The way in which the UK is approaching the regulation of social media will undermine privacy and freedom of expression and have a chilling effect on Internet use by everyone in Britain. Perhaps it is because discussion of a new approach to Internet regulation occurred in the midst of the public’s focus on Brexit, this initiative has not really been exposed to critical scrutiny. Ironically, its implementation would do incredible harm to the human rights of the public at large albeit in the name of curbing the use of the Internet by malicious users, such as terrorists and pedophiles. Hopefully, it is not too late to reconsider this cyber harms framework.
The problems with the government’s approach were covered well by Gian Voipicelli in an article in Wired UK. I presented my own concerns in a summary to the consumer forum for communications in June of 2019. The problems with this approach were so apparent that I could not imagine this idea making its way into the Queen’s Speech as part of the legislative programme for the newly elected Conservative Government. It has, so let me briefly outline my concerns.
The aim has been to find a way to stop illegal or ‘unacceptable’ content and activity online. The problem has been finding a way to regulate the Internet and social media in ways that could accomplish this aim without violating the privacy and freedom of all digital citizens – networked individuals, such as yourself. The big idea has been to apply a duty of care responsibility on the social media companies, the intermediaries between those who use the Internet. Generally, Internet companies, like telephone companies, in the past, would not be held responsible for what their users do. Their liability would be very limited. Imagine a phone company sued because a pedophile used the phone. The phone company would have to surveil all telephone use to catch offenses. Likewise, Internet intermediaries will need to know what everyone is using the Internet and social media for to stop illegal or ‘unacceptable’ behavior. This is one reason why many commentators have referred to this as a draconian initiative.
So, what are the possible harms? Before enumerating the harms it does consider, it does not deal with harms covered by other legislation or regulators, such as privacy, which is the responsibility of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Ironically, one of the major harms of this initiative will be to the privacy of individual Internet users. Where is the ICO?
The harms cited as within the scope of this cyber harms initiative included: child sexual exploitation and abuse; terrorist content and activity; organized immigration crime; modern slavery; extreme pornography; harassment and cyberstalking; hate crime; encouraging and assisting suicide; incitement to violence; sale of illegal goods/services, such as drugs and weapons (on the open Internet); content illegally uploaded from prisons; sexting of indecent images by under 18s (creating, possessing, copying or distributing indecent or sexual images of children and young people under the age of 18). This is only a start, as there are cyber harms with ‘less clear’ definitions, including: cyberbullying and trolling; extremist content and activity; coercive behaviour; intimidation; disinformation; violent content; advocacy of self-harm; promotion of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); and underage exposure to legal content, such as children accessing pornography, and spending excessive time online – screen time. Clearly, this is a huge range of possible harms, and the list can be expanded over time, as new harms are discovered.
Take one harm, for example, disinformation. Seriously, do you want the regulator, or the social media companies to judge what is disinformation? This would be ludicrous. Internet companies are not public service broadcasters, even though many would like them to behave as if they were.
The idea is that those companies that allow users to share or discover ‘user-generated content or interact with each other online’ will have ‘a statutory duty of care’ to be responsible for the safety of their users and prevent them from suffering these harms. If they fail, the regulator can take action against the companies, such as fining the social media executives, or threatening them with criminal prosecution.
The White Paper also recommended several technical initiatives, such as to flag suspicious content, and educational initiatives, such as in online media literacy. But the duty of care responsibility is the key and most problematic issue.
Specifically, the cyber harms initiative poses the following risks:
- Covering an overly broad and open-ended range of cyber harms;
- Requiring surveillance in order to police this duty that could undermine privacy of all users;
- Incentivizing companies to over-regulate content & activity, resulting in more restrictions on anonymity, speech, and chilling effects on freedom of expression;
- Generating more fear, and panic among the general public, undermining adoption & use of the Internet and widening digital divides;
- Necessitating an invasive monitoring of content, facing a volume of instances that is an order of magnitude beyond traditional media and telecom, such as 300 hours of video posted on YouTube every minute;
- Essentially targeting American tech giants (no British companies), and even suggesting subsidies for British companies, which will be viewed as protectionist, leaving Britain as a virtual backwater of a more global Internet;
- Increasing the fragmentation of Internet regulators: a new regulator, Ofcom, new consumer ‘champion’, ICO, or more?
Notwithstanding these risks, this push is finding support for a variety of reasons. One general driver has been the rise of a dystopian climate of opinion about the Internet and social media over the last decade. This has been exacerbated by concerns over child protection and elections in the US, across Europe, such as with Cambridge Analytica, and with Brexit that created the spectre of foreign interference. Also, Europe and the UK have not developed Internet and social media companies comparable to the so-called big nine of the US and China. (While the UK has a strong online game industry, this industry is not mentioned at all in the White Paper, except as a target of subsidies.) The Internet and social media companies are viewed as foreign, and primarily American, companies that are politically popular to target. In this context, the platformization of the Internet and social media has been a gift to regulators — the potential for companies to police a large proportion of traffic, providing a way forward for politicians and regulators to ‘do something’. But at what costs?
The public has valid complaints and concerns over instances of online harms. Politicians have not known what to do, but now have been led to believe they can simply turn to the companies and command them to stop cyber harms from occurring, or they will suffer the consequences in the way of executives facing steep fines or criminal penalties. But this carries huge risks, primarily in leading to over-regulation and inappropriate curtailing of the privacy and freedom of expression of all digital citizens across the UK.
You only need to look at China to see how this model works. In China, an Internet or social media company could lose its license overnight if it allowed users to cross red lines determined by the government. And this fear has unsurprisingly led to over-regulation by these companies. Thus, the central government of China can count on private firms to strictly regulate Internet content and use. A similar outcome will occur in Britain, making it not the safest place to be online, but a place you would not want to be online with your content with even screen time under surveillance. User-generated content will be dangerous. Broadcast news and entertainment will be safe. Let the public watch movies.
In conclusion, while I am an American, I don’t think this is simply an American obsession with freedom of expression. This right is not absolute even in the USA. Internet users across the world value their ability to ask questions, voice concerns, and use online digital media to access information, people, and services they like without fear of surveillance. It can be a technology of freedom, as Ithiel de Sola Pool argued, in countries that support freedom of expression and personal privacy. If Britons decide to ask the government and regulators to restrict their use of the Internet and social media – for their own good – then they should support this framework for an e-nanny, or digital-nanny state. But its implications for Britain are real cyber harms that will result from this duty of care framework.
 A link to my slides for this presentation is here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/online-harms-white-paper-april-2019-bill-dutton?qid=5ea724d0-7b80-4e27-bfe0-545bdbd13b93&v=&b=&from_search=1
 Dutton, W. H., Law, G., Bolsover, G., and Dutta, S. (2013, released 2014) The Internet Trust Bubble: Global Values, Beliefs and Practices. NY: World Economic Forum.