Facebook and Google Will be Punished With Giant Fines in the U.K. IF INDEED THEY Neglect to Rid Their Platforms of Toxic Content

The British government wants tech firms to eliminate illegal hate speech, more subtle types of abuse like child grooming, and problematic content around suicide and self-harm.

The British government will hit social media firms with fines potentially worth vast amounts of dollars if they neglect to rid their platforms of harmful content.

Within an interview with Business Insider, the U.K.’s digital minister Margot James said a fresh independent tech regulator will get powers to punish companies, including Facebook and Google, which don’t properly protect users.

The plans will be lay out in full in an insurance plan paper on internet safety the following month, but James gave BI some insight in to the government’s thinking on what the brand new sanctions regime can work. It comes as lawmakers around the world are drawing up new rules to bring the tech giants to heel.

U.K. ministers will set up a powerful new tech regulator, which is independent of government. It’ll make determinations in what constitutes harmful content and hand out penalties for firms that neglect to take swift action in removing inappropriate posts.

James said the federal government will establish a sanctions regime "that’s not too dissimilar from the powers that the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] already has." Under new GDPR laws, the ICO has the capacity to level fines as high as 4% of global revenue for significant data breaches.

For Facebook, this might represent a penalty as high as $2.2 billion (£1.65 billion) on its total revenue of $55.8 billion in 2018. It could be even higher for Google, with 4% representing $5.4 billion of parent company Alphabet’s total revenue of $136.8 billion this past year.

Business Insider contacted Facebook and Google for comment. Both firms have said repeatedly lately that they are available to regulation.

Margot James, the UK’s digital minister.

Image credit: Jake Kanter/Business Insider

"You will have a robust sanction regime and it’s really inconceivable that it will not include financial penalties. And they’ll must be of a size to do something as a deterrent. In the event that you go through the ICO’s fining powers, that could be a useful guide from what we’re considering," James said.

It’s the first time the federal government has explicitly organized the chance of major fines for internet sites and tech companies.

It isn’t just financial penalties that are in mind. The government in addition has suggested that tech executives could face criminal sanctions if indeed they neglect to control their platforms. "We will consider all possible options for penalties," Jeremy Wright, the U.K.’s culture secretary, told the BBC earlier this month.

James said the federal government is going for a "holistic" view of what represents harmful content. This means Britain’s new penalties system could be more wide-ranging than in Germany, for instance, where companies could be fined up to €50 million ($57 million/£43 million) under so-called NetzDG laws banning online hate speech.

The U.K.’s new regulator will examine from illegal hate speech, such as for example ISIS recruitment videos or racism, to more challenging to detect types of abuse, such as for example online child grooming, or problematic content around suicide and self-harm. Misinformation may also are categorized as the remit of the regulator.

"These judgments aren’t necessarily clear," James said, adding that among the guiding principles will be that "what’s illegal and unacceptable offline ought to be illegal and unacceptable online."

Inside Facebook’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters.

Image credit: Reuters

She said it isn’t necessarily the fault of social media firms when toxic content surfaces on the platforms. It really is their fault, however, if indeed they neglect to take it off promptly, she said. "You need to take it down before it proliferates. That is the point. It’s too late once three weeks have gone by," James explained.

James was in SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA the other day with culture secretary Jeremy Wright. Wright met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to talk regulation, while James also had several meetings with executives at the business’s Menlo Park headquarters.

"Facebook were quite relieved, I’d say, at the prospects of a reliable independent third-party body being tasked with a number of the difficult decisions they are being forced to create with regards to a grey area between guess what happens is clearly illegal… but a few of the other harms that we’re wanting to reduce," James said.

Ministers are yet to choose if they will create a completely new regulator, or just hand the powers to the U.K.’s existing media watchdog, Ofcom, which already makes determinations about inappropriate content on television.

James added that the new the brand new powers should be "sensitively applied" as the government will not want to stymie innovation. "We clearly don’t want some sort of regulatory environment whose default is to deny and suppress because we you want to encourage innovation," she said.

The minister added the U.K. really wants to introduce regulation which you can use as a template by other countries, and ensures "other governments follow our lead."

THE UNITED KINGDOM lawmaker Damian Collins.

Image credit: Getty/Leon Neal

Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who the other day published the results of an 18-month inquiry into Facebook and online disinformation, said in his conclusions that tech firms ought to be hit with "large fines" if indeed they break a code of conduct on harmful content. He welcomed the comments created by James in her interview with Business Insider.

"A solid sanctions scheme will be necessary to make sure that the tech companies follow the proposals that the federal government is to create out shortly," Collins told BI. "I welcome the Minister’s position. As we’ve seen from examples including the NetzDG legislation in Germany, tech companies listen with their wallets, and if indeed they fail within their responsibilities they should face sizeable penalties."

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