The British government on Wednesday proposed sweeping reforms to force social media giants to take greater responsibility for what is posted online — including carve-outs to protect politicians when they write about the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
The much-delayed Online Safety Bill includes hefty penalties for companies that fail to remove illegal or harmful online content such as terrorist propaganda and child sexual abuse. It also imposes a so-called duty of care on social networks, smartphone apps and other sites where people can interact with each other, making them responsible for policing online content and protecting users from harm.
Yet in a late addition to the United Kingdom's proposals, which still must be approved by the country's parliament, British officials added provisions that would restrict the largest social media companies from taking action against content seen to be "democratically important." That includes posts from politicians and political parties — a hot-button issue after Facebook, Twitter and YouTube banned Donald Trump's social media accounts following the January 6 riots in Washington.
Content on news publishers’ websites will also not be subject to the new rules, and material from so-called "citizen journalists" will be protected under the proposals. Tommy Robinson, a local far-right leader, had attempted to label himself a journalist to avoid a prison sentence for live-streaming proceedings from a criminal trial.
"This new legislation will force tech companies to report online child abuse on their platforms, giving our law enforcement agencies the evidence they need to bring these offenders to justice," Priti Patel, the country's home secretary, said in a statement. “It’s time for tech companies to be held to account and to protect the British people from harm. If they fail to do so, they will face penalties.”
The U.K.'s proposals come as countries worldwide look to pass new laws to force social media companies to take more responsibility for what people share online.
In Germany, local officials recently revamped the country's own online content rules, known as NetzDG, to mandate that companies inform law enforcement whenever they discover illegal content on their sites. The European Union is also pushing ahead with separate proposals under the Digital Services Act, while countries like Hungary and Poland are pursuing reforms that would restrict the types of content these tech giants can ban from their platforms for breaking their community standards.
Ahead of the G7 meeting to be held in the U.K. in June, British officials are eager to promote their digital policymaking to the wider world, and view the Online Safety Bill — aimed to be a halfway house between Europe's content rules and the United States' more laissez-faire approach — as central to that pitch.
As part of the rules, social media companies could face fines of either £18 million or 10 percent of their annual global revenues, whichever is higher, if they fail to take action against illegal or, in some cases, harmful content. The country's Office of Communications, or Ofcom, will be given new powers to oversee the regime, which is expected to become law by the end of the year.
The U.K. has earmarked more onerous responsibilities for the largest of social media companies and online sites.
These firms — mostly the biggest American tech companies — will not only have to take action against illegal content, but also whenever they discover lawful material which can be viewed as potentially harmful to online users. That may include posts about self-harm or COVID-19 misinformation that do not meet the threshold of a criminal offense under the country's laws.
The British regulator also will be given powers to file criminal charges against individual social media executives whose companies do not comply with the country's new rules, though such provisions will only be introduced if the firms do not first meet their new responsibilities.
Humans rights campaigners and misinformation experts welcomed the U.K.’s new proposals, but urged politicians to balance the need to protect people online with others’ legitimate right to express themselves online.
FullFact, a fact-checking organization that works with Facebook to combat misinformation aimed at British users, said that the largest social media companies should be open with how they handle potentially harmful posts, and that the rules should focus on the rapidly evolving ways content is promoted online.
“Poorly drafted measures could prove detrimental to individuals and society for years to come,” the group said in a statement.
Anna-Sophie Harling, head of Europe for NewsGuard, a social media analytics firm that similarly tracks online falsehoods, said that the mere removal of individual pieces of illegal or harmful content would not help British citizens to take control over what they see daily within their social media feeds.
“Deplatforming and removal of content is a blunt tool against misinformation,” she said in an email. “Platform design needs to center around user empowerment and increased digital resilience."