UK government threatens a ‘Troll Tax’, but softens rhetoric around social media giants

SUMMARY:

Before the UK General Election debacle, the Conservative Party talked tough about reining in social media. Not so much today, when the talk is now of consultation.

Karen Bradley

Last week I reeled in despair at the lack of tech savvy and know-how among policy-makers and legislators making tech decisions based on no understanding/warped understanding of basic issues. This week it’s talk of a troll tax.

Last week’s critique was fueled by UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s Conservative Party Conference keynote speech on a day when she proudly declared her ignorance of encryption and boasted that she didn’t need to understand it, despite calling for an end to end-to-end encryption.

I pointed out in that piece that Rudd was far from the only culprit here. And to prove my point, the UK Culture Secretary Karen Bradley delivered this opening zinger during one of of series of grandstanding interviews today around the latest bravura claim to be taking on the scourge of social media.

We want to make the internet the safest place to be online.

The UK government has now issued a green paper consultation on a planned Internet Safety Strategy. This covers topics such as:

  • the introduction of a social media code of practice, transparency reporting and a social media levy.
  • technological solutions to online harms.
  • developing children’s digital literacy.
  • support for parents and carers.
  • adults’ experience of online abuse.
  • young people’s use of online dating websites/ applications.

Talking up a so-called ‘Troll Tax’ that would be levied on the likes of Facebook and Twitter if found guilty of not taking action against online bulllies, Bradley did at least make a significant concession to common-sense.

Despite threatening during the General Election campaign earlier in the year to bring in new laws to tackle abuse, she now admits that such legislation would be too complicated and take “far too long” to introduce.

The Conservative Party election manifesto had promised:

We will create a power in law for Government to introduce an industry-wide levy from social media companies and communication service providers to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms, just as is already the case with the gambling industry.

But today, Bradley told the BBC:

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…If we can do this without legislating – which is quicker, more effective – gets a better result, let’s not put ideology in front of delivering.

Plan B

So Plan B is to get social media firms to sign up to a voluntary code of practice and help fund campaigns against abuse as part of a “collaborative approach” with social media platforms.

The hint of an olive branch was welcomed by Facebook, which said in a statement:

Our priority is to make Facebook a safe place for people of all ages which is why we spent a long time working with safety experts like the UK Safer Internet Centre, developing powerful tools to help people have a positive experience. We welcome close collaboration between industry, experts and government to address this important issue.

For the UK tech industry, trade association techUK urged no hasty decisions. Deputy CEO, Antony Walker, said:

The UK tech sector shares the government’s ambition to make Britain the safest place for people to be online. The Green Paper highlights much of the excellent insights and initiatives that have been driven by industry over the last ten years. The Strategy will succeed if it is founded on collaboration between government, businesses, charities and internet users.  When it comes to online safety, we’re all in it together. The big challenge is to find and build effective solutions that can be applied at scale.

There is widespread agreement that educating and empowering internet users remains the most effective way to build digital resilience. Companies continue to develop powerful tools to keep users safe, but we have to educate and empower children, parents and the wider public to stay safe and spot potential harm. Any new initiatives, such as an industry-wide Levy, must not undermine the good work that is already being done by businesses. Companies will want to understand that any funds raised by the levy are being used effectively.

It is important to remember that not all tech companies are the same and there isn’t a one size fits all solution. We need a smart approach that allows companies to tailor their initiative depending on where they sit in the digital ecosystem. Getting all of this right will depend upon strong engagement and effective dialogue between all of those with real experience and expertise. This is too important to get wrong.

My take

techUK is quite correct that this is an issue that has to be dealt with appropriately and with due consideration – not to mention a bit of tech savvy!

The absence of a major majority for the Conservative Party has been cited today as a reason for the toning down of the General Election rhetoric, although the Labour Party has been just as bellicose about clamping down on social media firms, so cross-party accord isn’t likely to be as difficult to secure as some commentators have suggested.

The ‘let’s collaborate’ message today isn’t going to go down well with the right wing media, such as the Daily Mail or the Murdoch empire. Indeed, The Sun newspaper has already accused Bradley of “giving into pressure from web giants”. That meant that Bradley’s on the back foot already, forced to insist:

It’s not backing away at all, it’s saying what is the best way to do this?

Let’s hope that the pursuit of “the best way” is indeed what’s happening here. The ‘backing down’ accusations will be repeated a lot before the end of the consultation period in December.

Image credit - GOV.UK

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