Rrespect can be a rare commodity online depending on what Twitter threads or facebook groups to which you belong. But the word was used heavily by the British government last month when it said it would oppose attempts to water down its proposed powers over the internet.
The mannered language belies a legislative wolf in sheep’s clothing, critics of the online security law say. This one much-discussed legislation will return to the House of Representatives on 12 July, and MPs made it clear this week that they believe that the culture secretary in his current form will have too much power over the internet.
Julian Knight, the Conservative MP who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, warned that the Secretary of State will have disproportionate influence on ofcom, the independent regulator charged with the implementation of the law. He called for the removal of clauses that would allow Nadine Dorries, still secretary of culture at the time of publication, to order Ofcom to change codes of conduct, including dealing with terrorist content and child sexual exploitation, before Parliament takes them into consideration.
“A free media depends on ensuring the regulator is free from the threat of daily executive interference,” Knight said. “Government will still play an important role in determining the direction of travel, but Ofcom should not be constantly looking over its shoulder and obeying the whims of a backseat Secretary of State.”
The government was polite with its hard no. Speaking to a committee of MPs reviewing the bill last month, digital minister Chris Philp said the government would “respectfully resist” attempts to water down the secretary of state’s powers.
The government is not progressing on that point, but is still making changes.
The bill imposes a duty of care on tech companies — or rather, platforms that produce user-generated content, such as social media giants, as well as major search engines, including Google — to protect users from harmful content. This duty of care can be roughly divided into three parts: limiting the distribution of illegal content such as images of child sexual abuse and terrorist material; ensure that children are not exposed to harmful or inappropriate content; and, for the major platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, which protects adults from legal but harmful content (such as cyberbullying and material related to eating disorders).
The legislation will be overseen by Ofcom, which can impose fines of £18 million or 10% of a company’s worldwide turnover for breaches of the law. In extreme cases, it can also block websites or apps. On Wednesday, Ofcom published its step-by-step plan for the implementation of the lawincluding a focus on tackling illegal content within the first 100 days of implementation of the legislation.
Here is a fast precision of what will change when the bill enters the next phase. It should be law by the end of the year or early 2023, depending on how things are going in the House of Lords, which will no doubt have a few issues with it.
Ch-ch Changes: Confirmed Changes
In time for the reporting phase on 12 July, the cabinet will make some changes, and a new batch will be announced shortly after. Under one confirmed change, technology companies will need to protect internet users from: state sponsored disinformation which poses a threat to British society and democracy. This tightens up existing proposals on disinformation in the bill, which already require tech companies to take action against state-sponsored disinformation that harms individuals — such as threats of death.
Another confirmed amendment is equally incremental. A clause in the bill targeting end-to-end encrypted services already gives Ofcom the power to require those platforms to use “accredited technology” to detect child sexual abuse and exploitation [CSEA] content. If that doesn’t work, they should use their “best efforts” to develop or implement new technology to find and remove CSEA. This movement appears to be aimed at: Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to introduce end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger and Instagram.
Do no harm first: what is expected
At the commission stage, Philp confirmed that the government will somehow commit an offense against intentionally sending flashing images to trigger seizures. However, it may not be in the security law.
He also said the government will publish a list of “priority harm” to adults “in due course”, indicating a change to the original plan to publish them after the bill becomes law. These are the harmful, but non-criminal, forms of harm that fall below the threshold of illegality and need to be addressed by platforms, which are expected to include self-harm, harassment, and eating disorders. There is concern that this will turn the bill into a charter of censorship in which tech companies turn against content that is in a gray area of acceptability, such as satire.
William Perrin, an administrator of the Carnegie UK Trust Charity, wants the government to go ahead and publish that priority damage in the amended bill so MPs can debate it before it becomes law. “Media regulation should be independent of the executive branch,” he says. “The government must relinquish the power to define harmful but not illegal content and instead hammer it into parliament.”
Broadening the criminal landscape: other changes
The “priority harms” clause applies to so-called Category 1 technology companies, the big hitters such as facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. There are calls to expand that list to more edgy platforms like 4chan and BitChute, which are sure to contain malicious content.
Philp also told MPs last month that he would consider calls for more offenses to be added to the list of illegal content – related to real crime – to be tackled by all businesses within the scope of the bill. Human trafficking and modern slavery were among the offenses MPs want to include. Right now, the “priority violations” listed in the bill include the illegal sale of firearms and threats of death.
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