Digital Minister Margot James reflected the public and political consensus in her speech on Safer Internet Day. She confirmed major platforms have to take responsibility for the content they host. Perhaps for the first time, James confirmed there will be a significant increase in regulation. The minister said voluntary codes of conduct had failed and that “For too long the response from many of the large platforms has fallen short.”

The minister also confirmed the much awaited Online Harms White Paper will be released shortly. Consultation on new laws will take place over the summer. These proposals may extend to enforcing a statutory “duty of care” and the power to fine companies who do not remove harmful or illegal content quickly, and prioritise protection of the public.

Some in government have suggested broadcasting regulator Ofcom takes on responsibility for this new system. For the Labour Party, Deputy Leader Tom Watson MP argued for a completely new internet regulator with the power to fine platforms for failing to protect children. The Party also said it would look at breaking up the large platforms. It is not clear how a British government would do this, nor whether the Conservatives would support it.


What changed?

Pressure for change is mounting. The past few years have been rife with criticism for big tech. There has been scrutiny of tax, privacy, fake news and dangerous content.

Yet until now, efforts to address actions of the tech companies have been relatively limited. Redress was sought through established routes such as consumer protection, advertising standards and codes of conduct. Indeed, historically, Conservative governments have been wary of ‘stifling innovation’ through new regulation. Others also encouraged investment in the UK as the platforms grew in the early 2010s.

Disquiet in Westminster has grown to a crescendo in response to the public mood. The ‘empty chair’ appearances of tech company bosses in front of select committees have been most notable. However, it is the harrowing news of young people affected by harmful content that both political parties have highlighted when calling for change. Growing pressure resulted in Instagram announcing on Thursday that it will remove self-harm images “as quickly as we can”.


How to regulate?

So the public and political consensus is united. But if self-regulation is a thing of the past, what should the new system look like? As the Times pointed out, GDPR has been the most far-reaching regulation of late. But it was an EU initiative. The Online Harms White Paper will cover much more than data protection and the UK will have to set its own course after Brexit.

Devising a regulatory system is complex. Consider the controversy around Leveson and the arguments about freedom of speech regulation could create. There will be grey areas around how harmful content is defined and identified. And so far, the government has stayed silent on whether it wants a new regulator. This would take up scarce time and resource.

In many ways, the tech sector has begun to respond, although the momentum behind regulation is unlikely to halt.

In its State of European Tech report, venture capital firm Atomico asked whether there is a ‘second mover’ advantage for start-ups, which can learn from these high profile issues. This raises an important point. Businesses of all types are facing challenges and critics like never before. The tech sector, from small start-ups to global behemoths, needs to think more carefully than ever about how it engages with the public and interested parties, and presents itself to the rest of the world.

By Francis Mallinson, Associate Director