A government watchdog is expected to demand changes in the law meaning social media platforms can be harshly punished and sued if they fail to delete content considered hateful, extremist, or racist.
Critics say the legislation could make internet moguls into a kind of “national censor” and they will “err on the side of caution by removing any content deemed remotely risky” to avoid sanctions.
Theresa May’s independent ethics watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), wants the likes of Facebook and Twitter to be classed as publishers rather than platforms, making them more responsible for the content on their websites, The Times reports.
Much genuinely racist content online is already removed. If the changes go through, it is feared criticism of Islam and other unfashionable views could become more widely censored on social media.
The terms “extremism” and “hate” have already been politicised, with UKIP supporters being reported to authorities and counter-terror programs because of their views. Furthermore, UK police consider anything “perceived” as offending someone’s religion or identity as a potential “hate crime.”
A forthcoming CSPL report will not spell out specific sanctions companies should be hit with, but lawyers told The Times legislation could mean prosecution for those that failed to comply with new rules. They could also be sued for not removing content quick enough.
Lord Bew, who chairs the CSPL, said he was normally “allergic” to proposing new legislation but was demanding changes in the law because his committee was “frustrated” with how the big tech companies are addressing the issue.
Furthermore, the government is already looking at a statutory “code of conduct” for social media companies, backed by legislation.
Facebook has previously criticised plans by the German government, proposed earlier this year, to fine social media platforms up to €50 million if they fail to remove perceived “hate speech.” The European Union and Sweden have proposed similar laws.
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) December 5, 2016
In response to the news in the UK, Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “This is an attempt to make [Facebook boss] Mark Zuckerberg a national censor.
“Facebook and Twitter will censor legal material because they are scared of fines. They are the worst people to judge right and wrong.”
The group has launched a petition calling for the government to protect free speech online. It reads:
“Extremist content is unwanted and should be treated as a serious concern, but internet companies are not fit to police their own networks. Unlike an independent judiciary, businesses are not impartial.
“Faced with the threat of fines, they will err on the side of caution by removing any content deemed remotely risky.”