- Exclusive: The British government plans to punish firms like Facebook and Google with fines potentially worth billions of dollars if they don’t rid their platforms of content considered harmful.
- In an interview with Business Insider, the UK’s digital minister, Margot James, suggested a new tech regulator could administer fines of up to 4% of companies’ global revenue.
- The British government wants tech firms to eradicate illegal hate speech, more subtle forms of abuse like child grooming, and problematic content around suicide and self-harm.
- The plans will be set out in a policy paper next month, and it follows UK ministers meeting last week with Silicon Valley tech executives, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
- Damian Collins, a lawmaker who has called on the government to introduce a fines regime, welcomed the news and said tech firms “listen with their wallets.”
The British government plans to hit social-media firms with fines potentially worth billions of dollars if they fail to rid their platforms of content considered harmful.
In an interview with Business Insider, the UK’s digital minister, Margot James, said a new independent tech regulator would be given powers to punish companies, including Facebook and Google, found not to properly protect users.
The plans are set to be detailed in full in a policy paper on internet safety next month, but James gave Business Insider some insight into the government’s thinking on how the new sanctions regime could work. It comes as lawmakers across the world are drawing up new rules to bring the biggest tech giants to heel.
UK ministers are planning to establish a powerful new tech regulator meant to be independent of government. It will make determinations about what constitutes harmful content and dish out penalties for firms that fail to take swift action in removing inappropriate posts.
James said the government would develop a sanctions regime “that is not too dissimilar from the powers that the ICO already has.” Under Europe’s new GDPR privacy laws, the Information Commissioner’s Office has the ability to level fines of up to 4% of global revenue for significant data breaches.
For Facebook, this would represent a penalty of up to $US2.2 billion (£1.65 billion) on its 2018 revenue of $US55.8 billion. It would be even higher for Google, with 4% representing $US5.4 billion of the parent company Alphabet’s 2018 revenue of $US136.8 billion.
Business Insider contacted Facebook and Google for comment. Both firms have said repeatedly in recent months that they are open to regulation.
“There will be a powerful sanction regime and it’s inconceivable that it won’t include financial penalties,” James said. “And they will have to be of a size to act as a deterrent. If you look at the ICO’s fining powers, that might be a useful guide to what we’re thinking about.”
It is the most specific the government has been about how a fines regime on harmful content might work for social networks and tech companies.
It is not just financial penalties that are under consideration. The government has also suggested that tech executives could face criminal sanctions if they fail to get a grip on their platforms. “We will consider all possible options for penalties,” Jeremy Wright, the UK’s culture secretary, told the BBC earlier this month.
The definition of harmful content is pretty wide-ranging
James said the government was taking a “holistic” view of what represented harmful content. It means Britain’s new penalties system will be more wide-ranging than in Germany, for example, where companies can be fined up to 50 million euros ($US57 million/£43 million) under so-called NetzDG laws banning online hate speech.
The UK’s new regulator will examine everything from illegal hate speech, such as terrorist recruitment videos or racism, to abuse that is more difficult to detect, such as online child grooming or problematic content around suicide and self-harm. Misinformation will also fall under the remit of the regulator.
“These judgments are not necessarily clear,” James said, adding that one of the guiding principles would be that “what is illegal and unacceptable offline should be illegal and unacceptable online.”
The US, where many of the tech giants are based, generally has less restrictive laws around speech than countries in Europe. It does not ban hate speech, for example.
Still, companies like Google have faced advertising pressure in the US when algorithms place ads alongside objectionable videos such as terrorist propaganda, and Facebook has been at the center of calls for companies to do more to control the spread of disinformation.
James said it was not necessarily the fault of social-media firms when toxic content surfaced on their platforms. It is their fault, however, if they fail to remove it promptly, she said. “You’ve got to take it down before it proliferates,” James said. “That’s the point. It’s too late once three weeks have gone by.”
James was in San Francisco last week with Wright. The culture secretary met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to talk regulation, while James also had numerous meetings with executives at the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters.
“Facebook were quite relieved, I would say, at the prospects of a trusted independent third-party body being tasked with some of the difficult decisions that they are being forced to make when it comes to a grey area between you know what is clearly illegal… but then some of the other harms that we’re seeking to reduce,” James said.
The UK wants world-leading tech regulation
Ministers are yet to decide whether they will set up a new regulator or simply hand the powers to the UK’s media watchdog, Ofcom, which already makes determinations about inappropriate content on television.
James added that the new powers would have to be “sensitively applied” because the government did not want to stymie innovation. “We clearly don’t want a kind of regulatory environment whose default is to deny and suppress because we want to encourage innovation,” she said.
The minister added that the UK wanted to introduce regulation that could be used as a template by other countries and ensures “other governments follow our lead.”
Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who last week published the results of an 18-month inquiry into Facebook and online disinformation, said in his conclusions that tech firms should be hit with “large fines” if they broke a code of conduct on harmful content. He welcomed the comments made by James in her interview with Business Insider.
“A strong sanctions scheme will be essential to ensure that the tech companies abide by the proposals that the government is to set out shortly,” Collins told Business Insider. “I welcome the minister’s position. As we have seen from examples such as the NetzDG legislation in Germany, tech companies listen with their wallets, and if they fail in their responsibilities, then they should face sizable penalties.”
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