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Digital Business Lawyer

UK Conservative Party Manifesto sets out plans to regulate the internet

The UK Conservative Party Manifesto, published on 18 May 2017, includes a number of proposals to further regulate the internet, which, if the Conservatives win the UK’s General Election on 8 June 2017 and the proposals are implemented, would have significant implications for digital businesses operating in the UK. The proposals include the introduction of a sanctions regime under which digital companies may be fined or prosecuted if they fail to remove content that UK regulators deem to be illegal, which would include extremist content, the creation of a power in law for Government to introduce an industry-wide levy to be paid by social media companies and communication services providers in order to incentivise the prevention of ‘internet harms,’ and the enforcement of a ‘Digital Charter’ that would bring about new requirements and rights changes for digital businesses and consumers.

The Manifesto from the current Conservative Government, which has received mixed reactions in the press, states “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.” Under the heading ‘A Framework for Data and the Digital Economy,’ the Conservatives claim their proposals are necessary to protect citizens from harmful, abusive or extremist content, but Alistair Maughan, Partner at Morrison Foerster, fears that introducing such a legal framework might dissuade digital businesses from operating in the UK. “From a digital business perspective, a system of governance would involve almost no governance at all,” said Maughan. “But that’s not what the Conservative Party Manifesto promises: the whole section of the Manifesto leads with a rebuttal of the idea that no governance is good governance, and that it’s the Government’s job to regulate.” Gregor Pryor, Digital Media Expert and Co-Chair of the Entertainment and Media group at Reed Smith, voices similar concerns, also noting how the proposals may impact legal frameworks that already exist: “It is possible that a regulatory body with broad powers to remove infringing material without the capability to properly assess copyright law implications may have a detrimental effect on the development of the creative digital economy.”

Considering the proposal for an industry-wide levy on social media and communication service providers, Pryor points to possible issues regarding its implementation. “The practical reality of policing the internet is such that Government will need to consult […] with social platforms in order to gain a sensible understanding of the scale of the task,” said Pryor. “Obligations which go beyond existing laws, which are already far-reaching, will need to be measured against the scale of investment required by those platforms.” The Manifesto does not outline the specifics of the proposed levy, or the exact financial implications it may have for affected businesses.

Under the heading ‘A Digital Charter,’ the Conservative Manifesto proposes the introduction of new requirements for businesses to provide digital receipts, more detailed terms and conditions, support for new digital identification methods, to give rights to businesses to demand digital signatures and the digital cancellation of contracts, and to give citizens the right to request that social media companies delete all previously held data about them when they reach the age of 18. 

The Conservatives claim that the Digital Charter would “make Britain the best place to start and run a digital business.” Maughan however believes that the appeal of basing digital businesses in the UK will largely depend on the behaviour of neighbouring countries. “The question of whether a Digital Charter would attract big digital business has as much, or more to do with what other countries do. […] That may be the real secret sauce of the Digital Charter - i.e., it’s not as heavy on regulation as what the EU does.” 

“Over time - and I’m talking 20 years here - there’s every prospect that Brexit will lead to a lighter touch and a more favourable business environment in the UK than in the EU,” adds Maughan. “But if anyone looks at the proposals for a Digital Charter and thinks that in the short term the UK is going to be a much easier place for digital business if the Tories win on 8 June, they had better plan again.” 

Following the London terrorist attack of 3 June 2017, UK Prime Minister Theresa May criticised large tech companies for not doing more to fight terrorism. “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet and the big companies that provided internet based services provide. We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace, to prevent terrorist and extremist planning,” said May. Tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook have released responses to May’s comments stressing that they already take action to fight illegal content and are working to address such abuse. Jim Killock, Executive Director of Open Rights Group, a digital liberties group, stated in a blog post: “It is disappointing that in the aftermath of this attack, the Government’s response appears to focus on the regulation of the Internet and encryption. This could be a very risky approach. If successful, Theresa May could push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe. But we should not be distracted: the Internet and companies like Facebook are not a cause of this hatred and violence, but tools that can be abused. While governments and companies should take sensible measures to stop abuse, attempts to control the Internet is not the simple solution that Theresa May is claiming.”

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