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Matt Hancock in BBC appearance

Government to regulate ‘Wild West elements of the internet’, minister says

Image credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via REUTERS

Matt Hancock, the digital secretary, has announced that the government will be introducing laws to ensure that “the UK is the safest place in the world to be online”, although these laws may be years away from introduction.

The announcement follows the publication of the government’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper, which found that internet users feel unable to resolve problems with internet safety themselves, and believe that tech companies are not sufficiently accountable or transparent.

According to the paper, six out of 10 people had seen “inappropriate or harmful” content online and four out of 10 had experienced online abuse. Margot James, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, said that “any woman in public life” could expect to receive misogynistic abuse online.

“If it’s not illegal it should be, and I think some of it is,” she commented in an appearance on Sky this weekend.

Now, the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will collaborate with industry, charities and public on a White Paper which will lay out a series of legal measures to make the internet a safer place, particularly for vulnerable groups (such as children).

This White Paper will consider in which areas new legislation could be most impactful, and set out laws to curtail criminal behaviour (such as child exploitation) as well as non-criminal harm (such as cyberbullying) that thrives online. The government will also work to ensure that the ethical principles for advertising in traditional media – such as not targeting sexualised advertising at minors – are also enforced online.

According to Sajid Javid, the newly-appointed Home Secretary: “Criminals are using the internet to further their exploitation and abuse of children, while terrorists are abusing these platforms to recruit people and incite atrocities. We need to protect our communities from these heinous crimes and vile propaganda and that is why this government has been taking the lead on this issue.”

The drawing up of government regulations follows years of attempts to collaborate with large internet companies to introduce voluntary codes of conduct to make the internet a safer place. The government has repeatedly and publicly called on tech companies to take responsibility for the material spread on their platforms. According to Hancock, just four out of 14 invited social media companies showed up to government talks on the subject.

“Digital technology is overwhelmingly a force for good across the world and we must always champion innovation and change for the better,” said Hancock in a statement. “At the same time I have been clear that we have to address the Wild West elements of the Internet through legislation, in a way that supports innovation. We strongly support technology companies to start up and grow, and we want to work with them to keep our citizens safe.”

“People increasingly live their lives through online platforms so it’s more important than ever that people are safe and parents can have confidence they can keep their children from harm.”

“The measurements we’re taking forward today will help make sure children are protected online and balance the need for safety with the great freedoms the internet brings just as we have to strike this balance offline.”

Despite the extent of the abusive and inappropriate online content identified in the recent green paper, the government will not rush to legislate to clamp down on this content. In an ITV appearance this weekend, Hancock said that it will take a “couple of years” to draw up new rules for social media, such that the government could “get the details right”.

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