Government’s internet safety green paper includes voluntary levy on web giants and social media code of practice
Internet companies such as Google and Facebook are to be asked to pay for measures to combat and raise awareness about online bullying and other web dangers, under a UK government internet safety strategy outlined on Wednesday.
The proposed voluntary levy on social media firms and other leading web players is among a series of measures in an internet safety green paper, the product of a consultation process announced in February.
A press release about the green paper – the culture department did not release the full document in advance – said the levy would target issues such as cyberbullying, online abuse and children being exposed to pornography on the internet.
The paper also proposes a so-called social media code of practice to boost efforts to combat online bullying, intimidation or humiliation, and an annual “internet safety transparency report” to show progress on such issues.
Another plan would involve supporting tech startups to build internet safety into their products from the beginning.
However, all the measures would be voluntary and would involve persuading tech giants to move some of their existing awareness and enforcement programmes on to a more centralised basis.
If companies refuse to take part, it is understood ministers would consider a legislative approach, but there are as yet no plans as to how this could happen.
The culture secretary, Karen Bradley, defended the decision to make the levy voluntary, after the Conservative manifesto had promised legal powers to enforce a levy on internet companies.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said: “I don’t rule out legislating if that’s what we need to do but I’m hoping to do it working with the the companies.
“We are concluding on how best we do it. Taking legislation through the House of Commons and Lords is not the easiest way to do it.”
She added: “It’s not backing away at all. It’s saying what is the best way to do this.”
Bradley insisted a non-legislative route was “quicker, more effective, and gets a better result for everybody.”
She hinted that the government could change the status of social media companies to make them publishers rather than platforms, which could mean greater regulation of their content.
“Legally they are mere conduits but we are looking at their role and their responsibilities and we are looking at what their status should be. They are not legally publishers at this stage but we are looking at these issues,” she said.
The green paper will flesh out existing plans for relationship and sex education in schools to be extended to include ideas about online safety, and encouragement for social media firms to better promote their web safety plans.
Research carried out by a team of academics for the green paper found that almost 20% of 12- to 15-year-olds had in the last year encountered something online that they found “worrying or nasty in some way”.
Bradley said that although the internet was a huge force for good, “it has caused undeniable suffering and can be an especially harmful place for children and vulnerable people”.
She said: “Behaviour that is unacceptable in real life is unacceptable on a computer screen. We need an approach to the internet that protects everyone without restricting growth and innovation in the digital economy.
“Our ideas are ambitious – and rightly so. Collaboratively, government, industry, parents and communities can keep citizens safe online, but only by working together.”
Tom Watson, the Labour deputy leader, said: “Everyone agrees on the need to deal with abusive and harmful content online. Parents worry about what their children see on the internet, and too many people experience cyberbullying and online intimidation.
“We’re pleased the government has accepted Labour’s call for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools, including online safety education, as well as for codes of practice for social media companies to prevent abuse.
“But this announcement is short on detail. The government needs to say more about who exactly will pay the proposed levy, how much they will pay and how it will be spent. And they need to explain what transparency information they will be asking social media companies to provide.”
The Liberal Democrats said the plans amounted to little more than “scapegoating and castigating internet firms” and would achieve little.
The party’s home affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, said: “We must make the internet a much safer place, particularly for young people, but that means the hard graft of better education on digital, faster problem-reporting and stronger partnerships with industry.
“Regrettably, this government is still in the blame game, scapegoating and castigating internet firms and failing to see the huge economic benefits of investing in better digital education. Hopefully this green paper will be the last of the weak policy reheats and signal the start of real hard work on this issue.”