Should the internet be regulated? Should internet companies be subject to the same regulatory oversight as financial services providers, lawyers, and publishers? Indeed, aren't they simply publishers?
This week these questions were asked by a panel of academics, business leaders, and policymakers at a Westminster eForum event in London titled Next Steps for Online Regulation .
This is the first of two reports from the conference, reflecting its twin discussion streams and separate Chairs. The first looked at the road travelled so far and at what progress, if any, has been made. It was chaired by Baroness Kidron, Member
of the House of Lords and Chair of the 5Rights Foundation , an organisation that articulates children's rights online
Regulation has to be about actions 203 about what people actually do, not their speech or beliefs, according to Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve. The Chair of the second half of the Westminster Eforum debate this week on regulating the internet 203
which explored the practical forms this could take
An informal group of MPs, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media and Young People's Mental Health and Wellbeing has published a report calling for the establishment of an internet censor. The report clams:
80% of the UK public believe tighter regulation is needed to address the impact of social media on the health and wellbeing of young people.
63% of young people reported social media to be a good source of health information.
However, children who spend more than three hours a day using social media are twice as likely to display symptoms of mental ill health.
Pressure to conform to beauty standards perpetuated and praised online can encourage harmful behaviours to achieve "results", including body shame and disordered eating, with 46% of girls compared to 38% of all young people reporting
social media has a negative impacted on their self-esteem.
Establish a duty of care on all social media companies with registered UK users aged 24 and under in the form of a statutory code of conduct, with Ofcom to act as regulator.
Create a Social Media Health Alliance, funded by a 0.5% levy on the profits of social media companies, to fund research, educational initiatives and establish clearer guidance for the public.
Review whether the "addictive" nature of social media is sufficient for official disease classification.
Urgently commission robust, longitudinal research, into understanding the extent to which the impact of social media on young people's mental health and wellbeing is one of cause or correlation.
Chris Elmore MP, Chair of the APPG on Social Media on Young People's Mental Health and Wellbeing said:
"I truly think our report is the wakeup call needed to ensure - finally - that meaningful action is taken to lessen the negative impact social media is having on young people's mental health.
For far too long social media companies have been allowed to operate in an online Wild West. And it is in this lawless landscape that our children currently work and play online. This cannot continue. As the report makes clear, now is the time
for the government to take action.
The recommendations from our Inquiry are both sensible and reasonable; they would make a huge difference to the current mental health crisis among our young people.
I hope to work constructively with the UK Government in the coming weeks and months to ensure we see real changes to tackle the issues highlighted in the report at the earliest opportunity."
The House of Lords Communications Committee has called for a new, overarching censorship framework so that the services in the digital world are held accountable to an enforceable set of government rules.
The Lords Communications Committee writes:
In its report 'Regulating in a digital world' the committee notes that over a dozen UK regulators have a remit covering the digital world but there is no body which has complete oversight. As a result, regulation of the digital environment is
fragmented, with gaps and overlaps. Big tech companies have failed to adequately tackle online harms.
Responses to growing public concern have been piecemeal and inadequate. The Committee recommends a new Digital Authority, guided by 10 principles to inform regulation of the digital world.
The chairman of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg , said:
"The Government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles.
Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing. The current regulatory framework is out of date. The evidence we heard made a compelling and urgent case for a new approach to regulation. Without intervention, the largest tech companies
are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people's lives. Our proposals will ensure that rights are protected online as they are offline while keeping the internet open to
innovation and creativity, with a new culture of ethical behaviour embedded in the design of service."
Recommendations for a new regulatory approach Digital Authority
A new 'Digital Authority' should be established to co-ordinate regulators, continually assess regulation and make recommendations on which additional powers are necessary to fill gaps. The Digital Authority should play a key role in providing the
public, the Government and Parliament with the latest information. It should report to a new joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, whose remit would be to consider all matters related to the digital world.
10 principles for regulation
The 10 principles identified in the committee's report should guide all regulation of the internet. They include accountability, transparency, respect for privacy and freedom of expression. The principles will help the industry, regulators, the
Government and users work towards a common goal of making the internet a better, more respectful environment which is beneficial to all. If rights are infringed, those responsible should be held accountable in a fair and transparent way.
Recommendations for specific action Online harms and a duty of care
A duty of care should be imposed on online services which host and curate content which can openly be uploaded and accessed by the public. Given the urgent need to address online harms, Ofcom's remit should expand to include responsibility for
enforcing the duty of care.
Online platforms should make community standards clearer through a new classification framework akin to that of the British Board of Film Classification. Major platforms should invest in more effective moderation systems to uphold their
Users should have greater control over the collection of personal data. Maximum privacy and safety settings should be the default.
Data controllers and data processors should be required to publish an annual data transparency statement detailing which forms of behavioural data they generate or purchase from third parties, how they are stored, for how long, and how they are
used and transferred.
The Government should empower the Information Commissioner's Office to conduct impact-based audits where risks associated with using algorithms are greatest. Businesses should be required to explain how they use personal data and what their
The modern internet is characterised by the concentration of market power in a small number of companies which operate online platforms. Greater use of data portability might help, but this will require more interoperability.
The Government should consider creating a public-interest test for data-driven mergers and acquisitions.
Regulation should recognise the inherent power of intermediaries.