UK plans to hold internet executives liable for harmful content

8 Apr 2019

Image: © Maksym Gorpenyuk/

Public and political sentiment is shifting against social media giants.

As predicted, tough new laws that could see fines levelled against the profits of tech companies and find executives liable are finding their way to Europe.

On the heels of tough new laws passed in Australia that include fines against profits and jailing of executives, the UK government is proposing the establishment of an independent watchdog that will write a code of practice for internet companies.

‘The era of self-regulation for online companies is over’

The independent regulator will be empowered to enforce rules that target violent material, posts encouraging suicide, cyberbullying and child exploitation.

While tech giants such as Facebook and Google have previously denied responsibility for content published on their platforms, their arguments that they are not publishers are wearing thin.

Are internet giants circling wagons to protect profits?

More laws and regulations are likely to emerge as the world still contemplates the murder of 50 innocent people in Christchurch, New Zealand, and how the killer was able to livestream his actions to the world. Facebook said it removed 1.5m videos of the attack, 1.2m at upload, but within hours footage still remained on Facebook as well as Instagram, WhatsApp and Google’s YouTube.

Sensing that change is inevitable and potentially to stave off the threat to its profits from regulation, Facebook is trying to get ahead of the game. In the past week the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has had op-eds published in newspapers calling for better regulation. Business Insider reports that the company has also paid for native advertising with The Daily Telegraph under the title ‘Being human in the information age’, a series of upbeat, positive articles about the social media platform.

But perhaps the genie is out of the bottle on this one and, no matter how much slick PR or lobbying is carried out by internet giants, politicians and the public are having none of it. New Zealand’s privacy commissioner, John Edwards, took to Twitter to lambast Facebook for the role its technology has played in the incident in Christchurch as well as in the incitement of ethnic violence in countries such as Myanmar and elsewhere.

The proposed new plans by the UK’s department for digital, culture, media and sport as well as the Home Office include establishing an independent regulator with enforcement powers to fine companies that break the rules.

The department is also considering additional enforcement powers such as the ability to fine a company’s executives and force internet service providers to block sites that break the rules.

“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over,” said UK culture secretary Jeremy Wright.

A public consultation on the UK’s ‘online harms’ white paper will run for the next 12 weeks. As well as violence, hate crimes, harassment, revenge porn and the sale of illegal goods online, the paper also covers harmful behaviour such as cyberbullying, trolling, and the spread of so-called ‘fake news’ and disinformation.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years