While public attention is focused on the ongoing Brexit shambles, the UK government is plotting an Internet censoring power grab. The proposals, which would give the ruling regime in Westminster sweeping powers to silence dissent online, are outlined in the White Paper on Online Harms, which is published today.
Websites which break a new online code could be blocked in Britain under the biggest shake-up of internet law ever.
The proposal is supposedly designed to force tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to clean up harmful material on their platforms. In fact, it is clear that it will mainly be directed at smaller operations and at people and groups who fall foul of Britain’s increasingly totalitarian liberal elite.
While the paper has been hailed as a victory by online safety campaigners, it has also sparked fears that the efforts to crack down on the spread of child abuse images, terrorism, revenge pornography and hate crime will backfire and lead to totalitarian-style censorship.
Ex-Culture Secretary John Whittingdale drew parallels with the regimes in China and North Korea, whose governments routinely stop freedom of speech.
The proposals also suggest that companies could be wiped from internet search results and app stores if they fall foul of the law. In the most serious cases they could be banned from the internet altogether.
Under the new rules, any website which allows users to post content will have a legal ‘duty of care’ to all users.
The regulations will apply to firms such as Google and Facebook, which have repeatedly come under fire for hosting vile material, including terrorist and paedophile content.
But they will also apply to smaller websites which allow users to post comments, including blogs, and online news and review sites.
Web users will be held to account by an independent regulator, which will set out the new code and have the power to hand out severe punishments.
- Personal fines for individual senior managers at firms which seriously break the rules;
- Web firms needing to provide annual reports setting out the amount of harmful content on their platforms;
- Civil fines of up to £20million, or 4 per cent of annual turnover, for firms which break the rules;
- In the worst circumstances, the regulator could have offending websites blocked by internet service providers, so they cannot be accessed in the UK.
The regulator will also have powers to tackle disinformation – so-called ‘fake news’ – although the White Paper concedes this has no clear legal definition. We already know, of course, that ‘fake news’ is generally any inconvenient truth that the liberal elite don’t want people to hear.
The measures come amid growing concerns that tech giants are damaging democracy with misinformation. They have been criticised for circulating instruction manuals for would-be terrorists, hosting extremist videos and providing a ‘service’ for paedophiles to direct each other to illegal material.
The Government will say it is considering the extreme measures due to ‘the serious nature of the harms in scope and the global nature of online services’. It will add that the threat of disconnecting websites from the internet would ‘only be an option of last resort’.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said: ‘The era of self-regulation for online companies is over. We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online.’
But critics raised fears the measures threaten freedom of speech. Mr Whittingdale, Culture Secretary from 2015 to 2016, said the proposals risk dragging Britons into a ‘draconian censorship regime’ in the mould of China, Russia and North Korea.
He added: ‘This mooted new UK regulator must not give the despots an excuse to claim that they are simply following an example set by Britain.’
Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at Howard Kennedy, said: ‘We are the first Western regime to consider this. The only other countries doing this are Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia. It is not appropriate for a Western democracy.’