Tories will struggle to turn desire to regulate internet into policy | Jim Waterson

Matt Hancock wants to rein in internet excess – just don’t ask him how it will work in reality

Towards the end of the Conservatives’ 2017 general election manifesto was a largely overlooked chapter setting out the party’s stance on the future of the internet.

“Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet,” it said. “We disagree.”

The document went on to explain that the Conservatives believe “online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline”, and added that it it “should be as unacceptable to bully online as it is in the playground” and be “as difficult to commit a crime digitally as it is physically”.

This clear ideological belief that internet companies need to fall in line or face regulation – as opposed to the largely laissez-faire attitude adopted for the first two decades of mainstream internet usage – is now increasingly visible in government policy. It ranges from attempts to reduce the level of encryption on the messaging service WhatsApp for security reasons to the forthcoming mandatory age verification checks for online pornography.

The problem, as shown by Matt Hancock’s announcement on Sunday that he wants to “address the wild west elements of the internet through legislation”, is that it is not always clear how the government can turn the ideological desire to rein in the excesses of the internet into actual policy.

The culture secretary’s unexpected decision to announce new legislation setting standards in online behaviour, transparency reporting and online advertising surprised tech businesses that had been expecting a system of self-regulation.

On Sunday they were left scrabbling to try to understand how lofty proposals such as a commitment to reducing cyberbullying through a statutory code of practice would work in reality.

“There’s no detail on what they’re going to do,” said one executive at a social media company, warning it is very difficult to draw up a law that clearly defines which material counts as offensive and what is unpleasant but legitimate comment.

“Are they going to legislate against ‘inappropriate things’? In Whitehall, it’s very difficult to sign off on something that’s not defined.

“My suspicion is they’ll have 18 months of going around the houses and when they write it down they’ll find a lot of these issues don’t take well to legal definition.”

Despite this, the proposals are likely to be well-received by many pro-Conservative newspapers, which have run concerted campaigns, both in their publications and behind the scenes, against the dominance of Facebook and other social networks in the online advertising industry.

Questions also remain over Hancock’s threat, influenced by concerns for his own children, to fine internet companies billions of pounds if they continued to allow under-13s to sign up to their social networks. Although some social networking companies acknowledge the culture secretary’s concerns about the impact internet usage can have on children’s mental health, privately most doubt they can accurately verify the ages of children who sign up to their services using a false date of birth.

Hancock may also need to declare an interest. Earlier this year he launched an experimental social networking app under his own name as a way to stay in touch with constituents in his Suffolk constituency. It does not currently have any age checks, enabling a child of any age to sign up – so long as they only want to talk about Matt Hancock.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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