Tech giants like Facebook and Google set for UK crackdown on harmful content

Key Points
  • U.K. watchdog Ofcom will be given the power to impose a "duty of care" on tech giants to ensure they take a proactive role on harmful material.
  • The government had previously suggested setting up an independent, industry-funded regulator to enforce new rules.
  • While Britain wants a more stringent approach to regulating social media, critics warn it could potentially lead to censorship.
CEO and co-founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg poses next to Facebook head of global policy communications and former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (L) prior to a meeting with French President at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on May 10, 2019.
Yoah Valat | AFP | Getty Images

Britain's media regulator Ofcom has been chosen by the government to crack down on social media companies over how they deal with harmful content.

The watchdog will be handed new powers by London, allowing it to impose a "duty of care" on technology giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter to ensure they take a proactive role to prevent the distribution of harmful material online.

In a white paper published last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's administration identified content depicting child abuse, terrorism and self-harm as key areas it would look to tackle with the regulatory overhaul.

"As the internet continues to grow and transform our lives it is essential that we get the balance right between a thriving, open and vibrant virtual world, and one in which users are protected from harm," Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a joint ministerial statement Wednesday.

The U.K. held a consultation from April to July last year, the government said. It received over 2,400 responses from a range of organizations including the tech giants, small businesses and academics.

The government had previously suggested setting up an independent, industry-funded regulator to enforce the new rules. But it now says it's "minded to" select Ofcom, an existing regulator, instead.

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"On the question of who will be taking on the role of the regulator, having listened to feedback from this consultation, we are minded to appoint Ofcom," Morgan and Patel said. "This would allow us to build on Ofcom's expertise, avoid fragmentation of the regulatory landscape and enable quick progress on this important issue."

Potential fines

In its white paper, the British government said it could potentially give regulators the ability to impose fines on large tech companies and block internet service providers.

On Wednesday, the government said the regulator would have the ability to take a number of enforcement measures including "the power to issue warnings, notices and substantial fines."

The white paper also said regulators could impose liability on senior management at social media firms. In its consultation, the government said this enforcement power "emerged as an area of concern," with industry representatives worried about the impact on the attractiveness of the U.K.'s tech sector.

The government said respondents to its consultation wanted to ensure enforcement powers are used "fairly and proportionately."

Censorship fears

While London wants a more stringent approach to regulating social media, critics have said its proposals could backfire. Internet freedom activists are concerned it could impinge on users' right to freedom of speech, potentially leading to government-mandated censorship.

But in response to such concerns, the government said it would "ensure that there are safeguards in the legislation, so companies and the new regulator have a clear responsibility to protect users' rights online."

The U.K.'s aim to rein in social media platforms isn't an isolated case. Governments and regulators around the world are looking at how to introduce a regulatory framework for internet platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.

For their part, big tech companies have claimed they welcome increased government scrutiny. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that firms like his "should be accountable for enforcing standards on harmful content." Meanwhile, the CEOs of IBM, Google and Microsoft recently called for rules on artificial intelligence.