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8 April 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 10:29am

The government is attempting to fix the internet – and we should be cautiously optimistic

Regulating “disinformation”, though a worthy aim, will prove contentious.

By Alex Krasodomski-Jones

A cynic might note the irony in the government’s decision to launch a paper calling for digital regulations in the British Library. The library was once the world’s largest repository of knowledge – a claim that has since been superseded by the internet. It was here that the government today revealed its white paper on regulating online harms. And, among the bookshelves, there was cause for some cautious optimism.

The speakers played good and bad cop; Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was cautious and measured. In contrast, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid launched a ferocious attack against the internet’s Boschian hellscape, naming terrorists, paedophiles and hostile states that flourish in the internet’s worst recesses. But both were clear on one thing: the government must confront our new internet era.

The paper’s headline policy is a statutory duty of care to make internet companies take responsibility for users’ safety. An incoming independent regulator will have the power to fine companies that breach this duty. The remit is broad – any internet company that allows users to “share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other” – subjecting Wikipedia and 8Chan to the same regulatory regime.

But where its remit is broad, the harms that the paper sets out to confront are surprisingly few. They’re grouped into three categories – harms with a clear definition, cases involving underage exposure (including children accessing pornography), and harms with a less clear definition. It’s this “less clear” category that will spark controversy. It includes coercion, intimidation and disinformation, categories that are tricky to define, subject to conflicting interpretations, and often legal.

Disinformation is particularly blurry, and will likely prove contentious for a future regulator. The DCMS spells out some expectations, including “promoting authoritative news sources”, and suppressing content “disputed by reputable fact-checking services”.

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How far should the government go in determining what fictions are acceptable? When does a legitimate hunch become a conspiracy theory? These are political questions that require considered – and democratic – responses. While the government’s move towards regulating the internet is a welcome step, there will be many who look at these proposals with justified suspicion.

Indeed, the internet was originally imagined as a place free from government control. Regulating sources of “disinformation” is a worthy aim, which may still encounter the wrath of communities that subscribe to alternative versions of the truth.

In spite of incessant references to the most serious online harms, including child sexual exploitation and terrorism, the paper acknowledges that technology companies have made progress in dealing with content that is illegal. Some of the report’s exclusions veer towards the arbitrary; concrete digital harms like fraud, intellectual property violations, data breaches and the dark net make no appearance in the report.

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The future regulator will face a challenge in enforcing legal compliance among the millions of smaller internet companies. In the wake of Islamic State’s propaganda campaign in 2014, the government hauled a group of technology companies in front of then home secretary Amber Rudd and asked them to explain what they were doing to confront ISIS’s nefarious digital activities.

Among attendees were Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a Polish national called Mariusz who ran a tiny file hosting service out of his bedroom in Wroclaw. While the story is apocryphal, it showed the pitfalls of treating internet companies as one and the same despite their varied size and significance. It was reassuring to hear today that future regulations will be proportionate to the size – and resources – of each platform.

Running through the report is a sense that the government is fed up with online services continually putting profit above the interests of people. Jeremy Wright made clear that technology companies should start shifting towards user experience. Reading between the lines, it was a call for tech to take into account its impact on society, politics, communities and individuals.

Zuckerberg once proposed that Facebook ought to “move fast and break things” – an adage that was later plastered on the company’s walls. Technology’s public image has since moved away from this blinkered, breakneck approach. Future success in regulating technology companies won’t be measured in transparency reports or content policing – but rather in systematic change to the ways that technologies are developed.

If the UK is really going to improve its internet, it will depend on the fundamental architecture and spaces that underpin digital technology – and the motives with which companies act – rather than the forms of content or speech that are permitted or moderated.

By inscribing a duty of care into the operating principles of technology companies, the DCMS made a prudent step towards that approach. We should allow ourselves some cautious optimism.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones is director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos. He tweets @akrasodomski