Inevitable harms of UK regulation of social media

Today’s Financial Times raised concerns over the Online Safety Bill under consideration by the UK’s Parliament. It was entitled ‘Tech sector alarmed at Patel push to monitor ‘legal but harmful’ content’ (Bradshaw et al 2022:1). Everyone in the UK should be alarmed – not simply the tech companies.[1]

The risk is that by approaching the regulation of social media and the internet by addressing a litany of ‘cyber harms’, including legal content, the policy will inevitably undermine privacy and freedom of expression and have a chilling effect on internet use by everyone in the UK. As expressed years ago in a response to a ‘deeply flawed’ Cyber Harm consultation, one critic noted:

‘By including both subjective individual harms and nebulous harms to society, the government has brought upon itself the very problems, notably damage to legitimate online freedom of expression, that are avoided by the deliberately crafted limits to offline duties of care’ (Smith 2019, pp. 5-6).

Given that this new approach to internet regulation occurred in the midst of the public’s focus on Brexit, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not exposed to great public scrutiny. Still, the problems with the proposed approach have been addressed by multiple critical reviews (Dutton 2019; Voipicelli 2019), but with little effect other than to change the bill’s title from ‘online harms’ to ‘online safety’.

Online Safety is Not What is on the Tin

Specifically, the cyber harms now ‘safety’ bill: covers an overly broad and open-ended range of cyber harms; requires surveillance in order to police this duty that could undermine privacy of all users; incentivizes companies to over-regulate content and activity, resulting in more restrictions on anonymity and chilling effects on freedom of expression; potentially generates more fear and panic among the general public, undermining adoption and use of the internet and widening digital divides; and necessitates an invasive monitoring of content, facing a volume of instances that is an order of magnitude beyond traditional media and telecoms, such as over 500 hours of video posted on YouTube every minute (Clement 2020).

Notwithstanding these risks to an open and global internet and the potential to exacerbate digital divides, this push found support from actors focused on each of the respective cyber harms, such as disinformation. One more general driver has been the rise of a dystopian climate of opinion about the internet and social media over the last decade and less confidence on the part of those advocating freedom of expression. This has been exacerbated by increasing concerns over child protection as well as wildly exaggerated concerns over elections in the US, across Europe, such as with the Cambridge Analytica debacle, and with Brexit, which, taken together, created the spectre of foreign interference in elections and a need for content moderation (Murphy 2020).

In this context, the platformization of the internet and social media has been a gift to regulators. It created the potential for regulators to force companies to police a large proportion of traffic, providing a way forward for politicians and regulators to meet demands of traditional mainstream media, the press and public for them to ‘do something’.

The public has valid complaints and concerns over instances of online harms. Politicians have not known what to do, but this duty of care approach is unlikely to be a silver bullet. Politicians might believe they can simply turn to the companies and command them to stop cyber harms from occurring, or the companies will suffer the consequences, such as their executives facing steep fines or criminal penalties. But this remedy carries huge risks, primarily in leading to over-regulation of platforms and the internet and inappropriate curtailing of the privacy and freedom of expression of all digital citizens across the UK.

Ironically, given the UK’s early role in fostering an open internet, the new approach reflects aspects of internet control in China, which has been widely viewed as having a chilling effect on privacy and freedom of expression. This parallel was even noted in the Financial Times article (Bradshaw et al 2022). A similar outcome could occur in the UK, making it not the safest place to be online, but a place one would not want to be online with one’s content with even screen time under surveillance. User-generated content would be dangerous. Broadcast news and entertainment would be ‘safe’.

Despite such reservations, the ideas proposed by the consultation made their way into the Queen’s Speech as part of the legislative programme for the newly elected Conservative Government in 2019. And the consultation remains under consideration, and is set to be approved by Parliament in early 2022, just as the internet and social media have enabled working at home, online education, and networking public services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In conclusion, internet users across the world value their ability to ask any question, voice any concern, and use online digital media to access information, people, and services they like. It can empower individuals to hold institutions more accountable as sort of a Fifth Estate, complementing the Fourth Estate of an independent press, but only in countries that support freedom of expression and personal privacy (Dutton 2009). If citizens of the UK decide to ask the government and regulators to monitor and restrict their use of the internet and social media – for their own good – through a duty of care, they will end up with that proverbial digital-nanny state at best and a surveillance society in the worst-case scenario.

References

Bradshaw, T., Cameron-Chileshe, J., and Foster, P. (2022), ‘Tech sector alarmed at Patel push to monitor ‘legal by harmful’ content’, Financial Times, 16 February, p. 1.

Clement, J. (2020) ,‘YouTube: hours of video posted every minute 2019’, Statista, 25 (August). Available online at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/259477/hours-of-video-uploaded-to-youtube-every-minute/

Dutton, W. H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

Dutton, W. H. (2019), ‘Online harms white paper’, presentation to the consumer forum of Ofcom, 20 June: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/online-harms-white-paper-april-2019-bill-dutton 

Dutton, W. H., and Zorina, A. (2021), ‘The Ecology of Games Reshaping Information Policy: Internet Access in Belarus to Cyber Harms in the United Kingdom’, Chapter 9, pp. 130-145 in Duff, A., ed., Research Handbook on Information Policy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd

Murphy, H. (2020), ‘Tech chiefs rapped in Senate over content moderation’, Financial Times, 29 October, p. 8.

Smith, G. (2019), ‘Online harms white paper – response to consultation’, Cyberleagle, 28 June: https://www.cyberleagle.com/2019/06/speech-is-not-tripping-hazard-response.html

Voipicelli, G. (2019), ‘All that’s wrong with the UK’s crusade against online harms’, Wired, 9 April: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/online-harms-white-paper-uk-analysis


[1] A more detailed critique of the online safety bill from my perspective of an Ecology of Games is available in Dutton and Zorina (2021).

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