Britain proposes levy on Internet, social media firms

Money will fund online safety activities to tackle bullying of kids, other forms of abuse

LONDON • Britain published proposals yesterday for a levy on social media firms and Internet providers to help fund its online safety strategy, designed to tackle bullying, abuse and other risks for children and vulnerable users.

Under the latest guidance by the British government, technology companies will be required to publish an annual report on how complaints are handled, how published offensive material is removed, and the extent of their efforts to moderate bullying or offensive content about children, women, gay people or religions.

Prime Minister Theresa May and her ministers have been critical of firms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, repeatedly calling on them to do more to stop the spread of extremist content online and help victims of abuse.

Digital Minister Karen Bradley yesterday published proposals for an Internet Safety Strategy, including the levy, a code of practice on removing intimidating or humiliating content from social media, and online safety classes in schools.

"The Internet has been an amazing force for good, but it has caused undeniable suffering and can be an especially harmful place for children and vulnerable people," Ms Bradley said in a statement.

"We need an approach to the Internet that protects everyone without restricting growth and innovation in the digital economy."

The campaign is part of the government's wider strategy to force technology companies to accept greater responsibility for their content.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has also called on companies to "step up" and assume moral responsibility for ridding their platforms of terrorist content, refusing to rule out the prospect of compulsion by fines or legislation.

Britain has been pushing the envelope in terms of how willing it is to go after Silicon Valley. Efforts to end hate speech and trolling on social media have intensified in the wake of five terror attacks this year, yet the desire to regulate tech firms, in ways that are unprecedented, risks driving them offshore.

On Tuesday, Ms Sharon White, chief executive of media regulator Ofcom, said she viewed companies like Facebook as news publishers. Mrs May's spokesman, Mr James Slack, later told reporters that the government was "looking at the role Google and Facebook play in the news environment" as well as "the roles, responsibility and legal status of the major Internet platforms".

The government proposal, which invites views from the industry before being formulated into legislation, said the levy would initially be sought on a voluntary basis.

"We may then seek to underpin this levy in legislation, to ensure the continued and reliable operation of the levy," the document said.

"The levy will not be a new tax on social media."

It likened the proposed levy to an existing one paid on a voluntary basis by the gambling sector to fund charitable work.

Social media firms have typically been exempt from regulatory fees that can apply to communication services.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Britain proposes levy on Internet, social media firms'. Print Edition | Subscribe