Margot James, minister for digital and the creative industries, has proposed the creation of an independent regulatory body for social media platforms – in the style of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) – as an alternative to harder legislative action combating illegal or abusive online behaviour.
James, who filled in at the last minute for culture minister Matt Hancock at Advertising Week Europe, said she believed some form of regulation was necessary in patrolling internet safety across social media platforms.
"What is illegal offline should be illegal online," she said. "There shouldn’t be this artificial distinction but I think there is a perception that the law is harder to enforce in an offline setting."
However, James was careful not to infer that government legislation was the only option.
“It’s got to be as easy for individuals and organisations to enforce their rights on social media platforms as it is to do so with traditional press,” she said. “I’ve seen the humongous cost and lengths of time associated with enforcing people’s rights against seriously abusive threatening messages, and it shouldn’t be that hard.
“Either we can make [easier] voluntarily with the [social] networks, or we will have to go to a more statutory framework.”
When pressed if she favoured the idea of an Ipso-style framework that social platforms sign up to, James said: “There is the potential for that; I think that could be a good step”, adding that the ideal organisation would work globally, as internet safety is “a global problem”.
“We can’t go on with the abusive behaviour, the freedom to assist people into self-harming states to the point of suicide … there are so many areas where there is a need for greater protection of people, as well as a liberation of people in terms of being able to enforce their rights.”
Dampened down opportunities
The minister added she is watching Germany’s decision to legislate against online abuse carefully and will investigate the efficacy of the country’s new internet laws on an upcoming trip to Berlin.
The Bundestag passed legislation that requires social media platforms to remove posts that violate German law within 24 hours of being reported – under penalty of a hefty fine – in 2017.
However she said she was cautious of strident legislation due to the “dampening” effect it could have on online freedoms, as well as the burgeoning startup economy.
“I’ve been quite concerned that the mood among so many parents now is one of such concern and fear for what their children and young teenagers are exposed to online that if we’re not careful there’s going to be such a chilling effect on what children and young people could do online,” she explained.
“I think would be tragic to forget the immense [online] revolution in a positive way – in terms of learning and experiencing and connecting. These are fantastic opportunities that we don’t want to see dampened down because of all the harms currently unregulated.”
James did not comment directly on the government’s position on the ongoing Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. She stated: “The information commissioner [Elizabeth Denham] has been investigating Facebook and this related issue for a little time now.
“She is independent of government so I don’t know the ins and outs of where she’s at with that, but I’m sure it will be really thorough. It certainly needs to be.”