Monday wasn’t the best day for the government to launch Online Harms, its white paper on internet regulation. As Sajid Javid was proudly proclaiming that Britain would have the toughest internet laws in the world, it emerged that a British woman had been arrested on a trip to Dubai and faced up to two years in prison for describing her ex-husband’s new wife as a ‘horse’ on Facebook. So does the Home Secretary want the UK to have tougher internet laws than the United Arab Emirates? If so, he might find himself at odds with the Foreign Secretary, who has been working behind the scenes to secure the poor woman’s release.
You can see why Javid, one of the front-runners in the Conservative party’s imminent leadership election, thought this would be an easy political win. According to research by Ofcom last year, 79 per cent of UK adult internet users have concerns about going online and the father of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who committed suicide in 2017 after accessing unsuitable material on Instagram, has been campaigning for laws to purge the internet of harmful content. In addition, the role that ‘disinformation’ and ‘fake news’ played in the EU referendum was highlighted in a recent report by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport select committee. Large social media companies such as Facebook, which owns Instagram, have been given ample opportunity to self-regulate and haven’t got the job done. Isn’t it about time a new sheriff stepped in to tame this Wild West?
But if you read Online Harms it soon becomes clear that it’s very difficult to ‘clean up’ the internet without encroaching on free speech. (To read more, click here.)