Dreams for a connected global internet are increasingly threatened by regulations being brought in by governments around the world, experts have warned. Plans to restrict content are fragmenting the world wide web, a system created with the promise of connecting people by offering universal access to information. China has walled off some western services for years and experts are now warning over plans elsewhere in the world to filter content, leading to nationalised internets. That includes the UK’s plans to hold executives personally liable for posts on social media that are harmful or illegal, revealed in a government white paper on Monday.
They say this would put the country at the ‘far end’ of internet censorship and further fuel the ‘splinternet’ – a term circulated for a decade or more that has gained popularity in recent months. These moves come as Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has called for a ‘common global framework’ of internet rules. The web’s creator Tim Berners Lee has also launched a ‘Contract for the Web’ that establishes an ethical set of principles for the internet. The New Zealand Christchurch mosques massacre live streamed online has heightened the sense of urgency in some countries, with debates in the US and EU on curbing incitement to violence.
A new Australian law could jail social media executives for failing to take down violent extremist content quickly. And a proposal unveiled in Britain could make executives personally liable for harmful content posted on social platforms. Free-speech defenders warn it would be dangerous to let governments regulate online content, even if social media sites are struggling. The UK proposal ‘is a very bad look for a rights-respecting democracy,’ said R David Edelman, a former White House technology adviser who now heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s project on technology, the economy and national security. ‘It would place the UK toward the far end of the internet censorship spectrum.’ However, the UK’s Culture Secretary has said that the proposed laws will not limit press freedom. In a letter to the Society of Editors yesterday, Jeremy Wright vowed that ‘journalistic or editorial content would not be affected’ by the proposals. And he reassured free speech advocates by saying there would be safeguards to protect the role of the press.