Social sites could be fined for harmful content by new UK regulator

After years of tough words but little action, it seems that the UK government is preparing to take steps to regulate the harmful user-generated content that appears on social networks.

Under the proposals released in a white paper this morning, the government proposes the creation of a regulator to ‘watch the watchers’ and ensure that social media companies are being effective at keeping harmful content at bay. The regulator – which may be a brand new organisation, or included in the responsibilities of an existing branch –  will have the power to fine companies and hold senior directors liable. Access to sites may also be blocked, and they could ultimately be removed from search engines under the proposals.

So what constitutes harmful content? It’s a broad range, but nothing you’d find too surprising from the definition: incitements to violence, the sharing of terrorist content, encouragement of self-harm or suicide, the spread of fake news and cyber bullying to name but a few. The difficulty, as ever, will be to establish where the line is in each case, and to judge intent and possible consequences.

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The era of self-regulation for online companies is over,” said digital secretary Jeremy Wright introducing the proposed measures. “Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough.”

Prime Minister Theresa May echoed the sentiments, adding: “For too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content. We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe.”

One such campaign group was especially welcoming of the proposals: “Time’s up for the social networks,” a NSPCC spokesperson told the BBC. “They’ve failed to police themselves and our children have paid the price.”

TechUK’s Vinous Ali welcomed the white paper but told CNET that some parts were “too vague.” Earlier on, the group had warned that the paper would have to “be clear about how trade-offs are balanced between harm prevention and fundamental rights,” which will be a difficult tightrope for the government to walk, should the white paper emerge as a fully fleshed-out policy in the months ahead.

Do these proposals sound workable? Let us know what you think on Twitter: @TrustedReviews.