The government has put into the Queen’s speech a commitment to bring forward proposals for a Digital Charter which sort of will and won’t regulate internet content. It’s set out below in the government’s own words from the background notes on the Queen’s speech. The Conservative manifesto sets some context (digital extracts from the document). What to make of this? Here’s a very quick take a couple of hours after the speech.
The Charter is included as a ‘non-legislative’ measure. The language of ‘proposals’ and ‘develop’ sounds like a Green (open consultative) or White (this is what we plan to do) Paper. The government focuses on the harmful effects of one person’s free speech on another. Focusing on harm caused by an electronic communication probably gives the government several options under existing law, much of which is enforced ineffectively by an overworked police force. I did some work on this with Anna Turley MP for her private members bill on malicious communications which suggested moving enforcement to OFCOM by licence but the large internet companies regulating themselves in the UK.
The Charter probably means qualitative regulation – ie people or systems making judgments about what is permitted in a given context and what isn’t. The regulatory stance seems to give companies a chance to help draft a charter, but that it would then be enforced upon them by regulation. As it is non-legislative that means no new regulator now – presumably the role would go to the BBFC or OFCOM or both. The BBFC has been empowered to tackle adult content age verification and are skilled at evidence based content regulation in a national consensus. Leaving the EU could possibly make this easier to develop but then adds to the complexity of negotiation in a swings and roundabouts manner. On the other hand the ECHR issues will remain, assuming the UK does remain a signatory. The government tries to cover off the international angle which will difficult, given widely differing conventions and laws on how absolute free speech is.
If this is a truly non-legislative proposal or only requires action under existing secondary legislation then the measures might not be affected by the government’s lack of an outright majority. It is possible that the DUP, which gives the impression sometimes of being censorious could support these proposals. Whilst the digital and free speech lobby will react strongly, I could well see the government bringing some major civil society bodies onside if they present the measures as correcting harms and primarily self regulation.
It’s going to be a fascinating couple of years.
“proposals for a new digital charter will be brought forward to ensure that the United Kingdom is the safest place to be online.”
• We will develop a Digital Charter that will create a new framework which balances users’ and businesses’ freedom and security online.
• The Charter will have two core objectives: making the UK the best place to start and run a digital business and the safest place in the world to be online.
• We will work with technology companies, charities, communities and international partners to develop the Charter; and we will make sure it is underpinned by an effective regulatory framework.
• We are optimistic about the opportunities on offer in the digital age, but we understand these opportunities come with new challenges and threats – to our security, privacy, emotional wellbeing, mental health and the safety of our children. We will respond to these challenges, assuring security and fairness in the new digital age and strengthening the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading digital economies.
• We strongly support a free and open internet. But, as in the offline world, freedoms online must be balanced with protections to ensure citizens are protected from the potential harms of the digital world. We will not shy away from tackling harmful behaviours and harmful content online – be that extremist, abusive or harmful to children. And we will make sure that technology companies do more to protect their users and improve safety online.
• Many of these challenges are of an international nature, so we will open discussions with other like-minded democracies and work with them to develop a shared approach. The Prime Minister has already started this process, securing an agreement with G7 countries to strengthen their work with tech companies on this vital agenda.
• Britain’s future prosperity will be built on our technical capability and creative flair. Through our Modern Industrial Strategy and digital strategy, we will help digital companies at every stage of their growth, including by supporting access to the finance, talent and infrastructure needed for success and by making it easier for companies and consumers to do business online.