UK: Websites to be fined over ‘online harms’ under new proposals

Internet sites could be fined or blocked if they fail to tackle “online harms” such as terrorist propaganda and child abuse, under government plans.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has proposed an independent watchdog and a code of practice for tech companies to follow.

Senior managers would be held liable for breaches, with a possible levy on the industry to fund the regulator.

But one think tank called the plans a “historic attack” on freedom of speech.

The Online Harms White Paper is a joint proposal from the DCMS and the Home Office.

It covers a range of issues, including spreading terrorist content, child sex abuse, so-called revenge pornography, hate crimes, harassment and “fake news”.

Ministers also say social networks must tackle material that encourages self-harm and suicide – which became a prominent issue after 14-year-old Molly Russell took her own life in 2017.

Molly Russell took her own life after accessing distressing material on Instagram

After she died her family found distressing material about depression and suicide on her Instagram account. Molly’s father holds the social media giant partly responsible for her death.

Outlining the proposals, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Wright said the era of self-regulation for online companies was “over”.

“Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough,” he said.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said tech giants and social media companies had a moral duty “to protect the young people they profit from”.

“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online.

What do the proposals say?

The plans call for an independent regulator to hold internet companies to account.

It would be funded by the tech industry. The government has not decided whether a new body will be established, or an existing one handed new powers.

The regulator will define a “code of best practice” that social networks and internet companies must adhere to.

As well as Facebook, Twitter and Google, the rules would apply to messaging services such as Snapchat and cloud storage services.

The regulator will have the power to fine companies and publish notices naming and shaming those that break the rules.

The government says it is also considering fines for individual company executives and making search engines remove links to offending websites.

Ministers “envisage” that fines and warning notices to companies will be included in an eventual bill.

They are also consulting over blocking harmful websites or stopping them from being listed by search engines.

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