The UK government has set out a new policy under a ‘government position paper’ about new regulations for tech companies.

It says the UK will make internet companies legally responsible for unlawful content and material that is damaging to individuals or the country.

The government said that an independent regulator would be created to enforce the new rules.

These will focus on removing content that incites violence, encourages suicide or constitutes cyber-bullying. Content related to terrorism and child abuse would face even stricter standards.

The government said in a statement:

Companies would be required to “take reasonable and proportionate action” to address objectionable content on their platforms. A “code of practice” would include measures to minimize the spread “of misleading and harmful disinformation with dedicated fact checkers, particularly during election periods,” it added.

Under the new rules Tech executives could be hit with substantial fines and criminal penalties.

Why is the UK government introducing more regulation?

Europe has already been ahead of the US when it comes to a more robust approach to tech regulation.

It has repeatedly confronted large tech companies over issues such as data protection, privacy, competition rules and tax.   There have been calls for tighter regulation in the UK recently.  Especially since social media was blamed for the suicide of a British teenager.  Also over Facebook’s failure to stop the live broadcast of the shootings in New Zealand.

The UK Prime Minister Theresa May said:

“For too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content. That is not good enough, and it is time to do things differently.”

The plan, which the government will continue to develop over the next 12 weeks before proposing as legislation, extends to any company that “allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other.”

That would include Twitter and Google’s video platform YouTube, but also popular internet message boards such as Reddit.

The companies would be required to have an easy and effective complaints function, where users would “receive timely, clear and transparent responses to their complaints.”

Social media firms would also be forced to publish annual reports on the amount of harmful content on their platforms and explain what they were doing to address the issue.

The government also said that the new regulator would be empowered to block access to websites or apps that break the rules, thereby disrupting their business models.

A “range of options” were being considered for subjecting individual senior managers to civil fines and criminal liability. The proposal suggested that rules governing executives in the financial services industry could be used as a model.

How have tech giants responded?

Kent Walker, senior vice president at Google, wrote in a blog post earlier this year that the company was seeking to address illegal and harmful content by increasing transparency and working with regulators.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in March that governments and regulators should play a “more active role” online. He said that a global approach was needed to ensure that “the Internet does not get fractured” and “entrepreneurs can build products that serve everyone.”

“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”

Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of UK public policy, said:

New rules should support innovation, the digital economy and freedom of speech. “These are complex issues to get right and we look forward to working with the government and parliament to ensure new regulations are effective,”

Twitter’s UK head of public policy Katy Minshall said:

The company is “deeply committed” to the safety of its users, touting what she said are “70 changes to our policies and processes last year.”

“We look forward to engaging in the next steps of the process, and working to strike an appropriate balance between keeping users safe and preserving the open, free nature of the internet.”

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