The U.K. Is Trying to Regulate the Internet: Here's What It Means
The Online Harms White Paper could be a litmus test for tech regulation in the U.S., as the U.K. government attempts to balance oversight with modern web freedoms.
The U.K. government is attempting to wrench control of the internet back from the giants of Silicon Valley. And they're doing it ... with a white paper.
But make no mistake: if implemented, the tenets of the Online Harms White Paper could turn the U.K. into a testing ground for a less laissez-faire version of World Wide Web than Silicon Valley is used to. It may also provide a blueprint for politicians calling for more regulation in the United States. But how it's enforced -- and whether the government can solve numerous complex problems at scale -- will determine whether all of this ultimately creates a safer internet.
What is the Online Harms White Paper?
The white paper, first announced at the end of 2018, tackles a number of far-reaching issues: terrorist groups, online disinformation campaigns and pedophile networks, as well as content that might not be illegal but can "cause serious harm."
The government report that aims to walk the fine line between a regulated internet and the autonomy of tech giants. "Privately run platforms have become akin to public spaces," the paper says, as evidenced by President Donald Trump's Twitter use.
As such, the U.K. government aims to set up a new regulatory body to enforce a "duty of care" by which large tech companies must abide. This includes taking down terrorist content, providing resources and support to users who have suffered harm, being more transparent with their actions and enforcing their own terms and conditions
In order to ensure these rules are enforced, the government will hand over a suite of powers to regulators: they would be able to issue fines, "disrupt the business activities of a non-compliant company" and hold executives of said companies personally responsible for breaching the regulation.
Why is this happening?
In a word: accoutability. "There is no mechanism to hold companies to account when they fail to tackle breaches. There is no formal, wide-reaching industry forum to improve coordination on terms and conditions," the white paper reads. "The absence of clear standards for what companies should do to tackle harms on their services makes it difficult for users to understand or uphold their rights."
Facebook, for example, has struggled to tackle hate speech and harassment (especially in the wake of the Christchurch shooting livestreamed on its site). On Twitter, there are accusations of bias and foreign election meddling, among a host of other issues and controversies.
The solutions to these issues are often shrouded in darkness because companies rely on patented machine learning tech they are unwilling to make public. It's impossible for a regulator to oversee a technology it does not know about.
As such, the proposed U.K. regulator position could compel companies to hand over information about "the impact of algorithms" in transparency reports, as well as detailed information about what countermeasures companies are taking to address harmful content.
What are the problems?
The first is the scale of the potential regulation. According to the white paper, companies in the crosshairs of the U.K. government are "companies of all sizes ... social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines." What is unclear is whether that applies to private messages as well, such as (encrypted) WhatsApp communications or (unencrypted, for now) Facebook Messages.
The white paper promises a "differentiated approach for private communication," but the U.K. government's track record on its citizens' privacy is questionable at best. GCHQ, one of the U.K.'s intelligence agencies, has already suggested adding a "ghost user" to encrypted messaging services that would eavesdrop on conversations, undermining users' basic expectations of privacy on these platforms.
"There is an obvious difference between one-to-one messaging and a WhatsApp group of several hundred users," the white paper says, but it's also unclear what the final intentions of the regulation will be. The white paper states that "the regulator will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online."
This statement seems to contradict its definition of disinformation as an online harm. The white paper also fails to address whether instances such as Russian-based campaign to sow dissent by politicizing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, for example, or a deepfake video of Mark Zuckerberg, would count as disinformation or free expression.
The second big problem is that, when it comes to attacks on their platforms, tech giants often wield a hammer rather than a scalpel. We've already seen YouTube remove history teachers' channels for discussing the rise of Nazism, while also demonetizing legitimate LGBT content, while Twitter suspended the accounts of Chinese dissidents ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Regulation might force platforms to act, there is no guarantee they will act in a way that is measured or beneficial.
What does it mean for the internet?
Although their reasons may differ, the proposed regulations in the U.K. could be a litmus test for its effectiveness in the U.S. Republicans are concerned about alleged biases, while Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren want to break up platforms' "power over our economy, our society and our democracy."
For those in the U.K. itself, the white paper indicates another step towards an internet controlled by a legislature keen to stop online harms -- such as minors viewing pornography -- but seemingly unable to specify how such proposals would be implemented successfully.
For the global internet, this regulation could further divide it from the idealized, universalist version envisioned by early web pioneers. Instead, we have a "splinternet" -- a web split between the public internet dominated by Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, and the Chinese authoritarian net where its own tech giants such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent reign. Countries such as Russia are also taking steps to create their own national intranets cut off from the rest of the web.
It's possible that the U.K. could find a middle-ground that maintains regulation without diving too far into authoritarianism. Yet based on the country's history of internet surveillance, it's worth proceeding with caution.
Adam Smith is the Contributing Editor for PCMag UK, and has written about technology for a number of publications including What Hi-Fi?, Stuff, WhatCulture, and MacFormat, reviewing smartphones, speakers, projectors, and all manner of weird tech. Always online, occasionally cromulent, you can follow him on Twitter @adamndsmith.