British Government Presents Softer Stance Over Online Content

The British government appears to be drawing back slightly from its previous hardline stance on censoring online content.

In yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, in which government plans for the new Parliament are outlined, it was confirmed that tech companies will be required to maintain a duty of care to users.

However, said the government in background notes to the speech, “We are seeking to do this by ensuring that companies have the right processes and systems in place to fulfil their obligations, rather than penalising them for individual instances of unacceptable content.”

And, importantly, while the government has promised to publish draft legislation for scrutiny, no bill was announced, meaning that any new law is unlikely to be introduced in the next year.

“Ahead of this legislation, the Government will publish work on tackling the use of the internet by terrorists and those engaged in child sexual abuse and exploitation, to ensure companies take action now to tackle content that threatens our national security and the physical safety of children,” read the notes.

“We are also taking forward additional measures, including a media literacy strategy, to empower users to stay safe online.”

This is rather less forceful language than that used by the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, when launching the Online Harms white paper earlier this year. Then, he said that companies that failed to remove harmful material posted by users would be slapped with large fines, and that individual senior managers could face criminal charges.

Of course, with the government currently nowhere near having a majority in the House of Commons, the Queen’s Speech is less of a series of promises, and more of an exercise in wishful thinking – or an election manifesto. As such, the government might have been expected to take a hardline stance, safe in the knowledge that it won’t actually have to square up to the likes of Facebook any timr soon.

Might the speech be an indication that the government is less hell-bent on confrontation with the major internet platforms than before?