UK to make web titans liable for online harms

Getting personal: Mark Zuckerberg could face fines of up to $2 billion under the new laws. © AFP

Could it undermine free speech? Facebook and Google bosses will face prosecution if they breach their “duty of care”. But some fear the same laws might be twisted to block truth-telling.

In a few years’ time, if you were to post violent content on YouTube, it might be one of the company’s executives who gets punished. Or it might be that YouTube has to pay millions in fines.

The UK government is announcing ambitious plans to regulate internet platforms.

It is doing so in the interest of public safety, with a particular focus on protecting vulnerable children. However, critics have said that any attempt to limit what gets posted online will ultimately lead to new forms of censorship.

From people sharing tips on self-harm on Facebook to terrorist organisations publishing slick recruitment videos on YouTube, social media can be a scary place.

In the early days of the internet, it was accepted that the price of unlimited freedom of expression was a certain percentage of content that ought never to see the light of day.

For the first time in human history, there was a place where billions of people could be their own publishers, editors, writers, and movie directors – openly creating and distributing content.

But over the last decade or so, the power concentrated in a few social media companies has grown exponentially. Controversial and shocking content can reach huge numbers of people in the blink of an eye.

When a right-wing terrorist decided to shoot people in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, he live-streamed it on Facebook. An increasing number of young people are taking their own lives after being bullied, or encouraged to do so, online.

The largest tech companies like Facebook, that owns WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google, that owns YouTube, employ scores of moderators to remove the most harmful material. But this is a slow and imperfect process. For years, the law in the US, where Facebook and Google are based, has protected internet platforms from being responsible for what individual users do on their sites.

Governments are now asking for more to be done. Following similar legislation in Germany and France, the UK is now telling companies such as Facebook and YouTube that they are responsible for what people come across while on these sites.

Will freedom of speech be sacrificed in the interest of protecting people online?

Cut the wires

No. Freedom of speech is never absolute. You cannot just threaten to hurt someone in real life. So, why are we treating the online world as if it is another universe? Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens. With kids growing up online, digital platforms should be as safe as any other public space. Governments are stepping up because private companies have not done enough.

Yes. Many see any attempt to regulate the internet as being the first step towards censorship. No one will defend material encouraging young people to self-harm. But that does not mean that the government should be writing laws that decide what people can or cannot do online. Social media is what people make of it. Punishing tech companies as if they are publishers is like punishing paper mills for the content of books.

You Decide

  1. Do you think the government should have any say over what people can post online?
  2. If you were in charge of a social media company, what would you do to make sure that harmful content does not get posted?


  1. Imagine life without the internet. It wasn’t that long ago! Make a list of the five biggest changes it would make to you.
  2. Write a letter to Mark Zuckerberg explaining what you like and don’t like about Facebook.

Some People Say...

“‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’”

George Orwell (1903-1950), English novelist and journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Today is officially Internet Safety Day. Boris Johnson has previously promised he would “make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”. The government’s original plans included holding senior managers at tech companies individually responsible for harmful content posted on their sites.
What do we not know?
How long it will take to make the new plans into law. We do not know how the major technology companies will change their platforms in the coming years. We do not know how similar laws might be used by governments that are not just trying to protect vulnerable people online.

Word Watch

Senior, powerful employees.
When a government or organisation decides what people can or cannot say or publish.
Words, audio, images or video.
Very quickly.
Many, lots.
People who clean up the internet.

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