The “online harm” White Paper proposes a statutory duty of care, to be conferred on media companies including platforms such as Facebook and Google, online messaging services like WhatsApp and file hosting sites.
They would be required to comply with a code of practice, setting out the steps they must take to meet the duty of care. This may include designing products and platforms to make them safer, directing users who have suffered harm towards support, combating disinformation (for example by using fact-checking services), and improving the transparency of political advertising.
They would be expected to co-operate with police and other enforcement agencies on illegalities including incitement of violence and selling illegal weapons.
And they would have to compile annual “transparency reports” detailing the amount of harmful content found on their platforms and what they are doing to combat it.
The government would have powers to direct the regulator – initially Ofcom, with a dedicated regulator to follow in the future – on specific issues such as terrorist activity or child sexual exploitation.
A couple of thoughts occur.
Firstly, I wonder if the media organisations who use the internet, such as the BBC, other TV companies, radio channels and newspapers realise that they would also be responsible for “combating disinformation (for example by using fact-checking services)” – and that includes during elections or referendum periods? If they had actually bothered to check a few claims during the referendum campaign, the UK might be in a very different position today.
Secondly, regulating online media platforms will not stop people posting “harmful” content to them, if there is nothing to stop them from doing so. It is farcically easy to create anonymous accounts, from which to post objectionable and/or abusive content. Shut one down? That’s fine – the individual responsible can have another up and running in a matter of minutes, if they don’t have multiple aliases working already.
It has been argued that people must have a right to be able to post anonymously, because of personal circumstances that make it important – possibly for their personal safety.
Fine. A system can be devised in which people apply for anonymity and the number of people or organisations able to ascertain their real identity is strictly limited. That would allow these individuals to continue functioning in the online world. And it would prevent others from abusing social media platforms. Any posts from an unrecognised anonymous account would be easy to flag up and isolate.
Now, I admit that’s just an idea off the top of my head, but it is workable – and if I can think of it, I’m sure government advisors have thought of it too.
And they have decided to attack social media platforms instead.
So the real questions here are: Why these choices? And what is their real purpose?
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