UK challenges internet rules as EU framework moves forward

LONDON – Great Britain wants to control the Internet. Too bad the European Union came first.

Brexit was supposed to allow Britain to get things done faster. But less than a month after the 27-member bloc’s Digital Services Act (DSA) came into force, London is still trying to cobble together its own version of the regulations, known as the Digital Services Bill for internet safety.

He tried again on Monday, with Britain’s Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan introducing an amended bill to parliament. It won the support of MPs but is undergoing further committee scrutiny before going to the House of Lords. And the path to settled law still looks far from certain.

The bill, which aims to make Britain the ‘safest place in the world to be online’, has not only been a victim of the country’s political instability – it has also proved a divisive issue for the ruling Conservative Party, where a minority of The majority of backbench MPs still see it as an unnecessary limit on freedom of speech.

“Far from being a world leader, the government has been beaten to the punch in regulating online spaces by many jurisdictions, including Canada, Australia and the EU,” said Lucy Powell, the shadow digital secretary of the opposition Labor Party.

Powell said the latest version of the cybersecurity bill was also at risk of stalling because of “chaos within the government and vested interests,” adding that it was imperative that the bill be passed by the Legislature by the end of April. of the current parliament. the session.

Much of the controversy over the bill has centered on rules governing supposedly legal but harmful content. This was largely removed from the latest planned version of the law, after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government bowed to pressure from right-wing MPs within his party, who argued the provisions threatened freedom of expression.

In the previous version of the bill, Ofcom, the country’s telecommunications and media regulator, was responsible for enforcing rules requiring social media giants to take action against potentially dangerous but technically legal material such as promoting self-harm .

However, government removal of legal but harmful content has not been universally welcomed. Nadine Dorries, Donelan’s predecessor as digital secretary, offered the deals and said they already had passed the parliamentary exam before the bill was suspended.

Long and winding road

Britain’s efforts to regulate the Internet really began under Theresa May, who became prime minister after Britain voted to leave the European Union and as lawmakers began to grow more skeptical of the technology.

The May 2017 Conservative election manifesto promised that “online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline”, but when Boris Johnson published his election bid in 2019, the Conservatives also promised to protect the most vulnerable from accessing content harmful. Under Johnson’s close ally Dorries, a version of legislation dealing with legal but harmful content began to make its way through Parliament, only to be put on hold after it was defeated by Tory MPs.

Johnson, the former prime minister, often seemed caught between his personal philosophy of free speech and his populist instinct to attack Big Tech.

The summer Conservative leadership contest to replace Johnson has reignited the debate, with candidates promising to review the law before the legal but harmful content provisions are finally toned down. Donelan replaced Dorries, becoming the seventh culture secretary since Brexit.

The EU’s path to its online solution has been faster. This is partly because free speech issues have not yet become the political touchstones that they are now in the Anglosphere. However, the EU has largely sidestepped the problem by keeping its regulation more directly focused on purely illegal content, and the European Commission has made it publicly clear that it does not want to create a so-called “Ministry of Truth”.

This means that the EU has not had to deal with the deep divisions that the Internet Safety Bill has caused in the UK, particularly among the ruling Tories.

Instead, Brussels’ institutions are mainly linked to key aspects of its framework, the DSA. The European Parliament and the Council of the EU – representing the 27 European governments – have broadly supported the European Commission’s cautious approach to creating rules to crack down on public content that is illegal under EU or national laws, such as pornography. children’s material or terrorist propaganda.

In terms of legal but harmful content, the EU’s approach requires very large online platforms – those with more than 45 million European users – to assess and limit the distribution of content such as disinformation and cyberbullying under the supervision of regulators. European rules have also gone further than those on the other side of the Channel, including mandatory risk assessment and audits for tech giants such as Meta and Alphabet so they can be held accountable for potential wrongdoing. In the UK, the main application was left to Ofcom through surveys.

Disagreements, when they have arisen in Europe, have been at the fringes rather than at the heart of the debate. The rows focused on limits on targeted advertising and the level of obligation for online marketplaces such as Amazon to conduct random checks for dangerous products on their platforms. In another example, some EU countries such as France and Germany have pushed and failed to set a 24-hour deadline for online platforms to remove illegal content.

Not just freedom of speech

In the UK, it is not just free speech issues that have been the subject of controversy. The EU has made separate rules aimed at cracking down on child sexual exploitation material online, but the UK has introduced similar provisions in the Online Safety Bill.

This means that high-stakes questions about how and whether surveillance requests infringe on privacy – particularly in encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp – are dealt with separately in the EU. But in the UK they have been thrown into the same mix as high-profile free speech debates.

Differences between regulations also raise the possibility of costly regulatory non-compliance. While UK law imposes general monitoring requirements on technology companies themselves, this is explicitly prohibited by the EU. Last month, the British regulator and its Australian counterpart created a new Western coalition of online content regulators, but did not invite any European counterparts to these discussions. Only the overseer of Ireland joined as an observer.

“It’s about establishing our international engagement while we wait for our rules to be put in place,” Melanie Dawes, director general of Ofcom, told POLITICO when the initiative was announced. “The success of this is the union of international partners. »

Clothilde Goujard reports from Brussels.

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