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UK cabinet backs tough new internet laws on online harms

Plans to create the democratic world’s strictest internet safety rules have won the backing of the UK cabinet, despite protests from the tech industry that Britain will become a “global outlier” in internet regulation.

A revised Online Safety bill will give Ofcom, the communications regulator, powers to require internet companies to use technology to proactively seek out and remove both “illegal content and [legal] content which is harmful to children ”.

The new powers were proposed in a recent letter to cabinet colleagues by home secretary Priti Patel and culture secretary Nadine Dorries, as part of a wide-ranging new framework for the internet that will be watched closely by other western countries and the world’s biggest technology companies .

The sweeping amendments, first reported this week by the FT, have triggered a backlash from the tech industry, which fears any modifications to the longstanding legal principles that insulate companies from liability for their users’ posts.

After almost three years of discussion about what was originally named the Online Harms bill, tech industry insiders said they were blindsided by the eleventh-hour additions.

The changes would make the UK a “global outlier in how liability is policed ​​and enforced online”, said Coadec, a trade body for tech start-ups. It added the UK would be a “significantly less attractive place to start, grow and maintain a tech business”.

The legislation has been the subject of what one government insider called a “long running civil war” between ministers defending freedom of speech online and those coming down in favor of the protection of the public.

Westminster insiders said ministers were reluctant to be seen opposing efforts to remove harmful material from the internet. The final bill is expected to be published within weeks.

Some in the tech sector had hoped that Chancellor Rishi Sunak might lead a fight to water down the new regime on the grounds that it might make Britain a less attractive location for both Big Tech companies and new start-ups.

But UK government insiders said that Sunak and other cabinet members had not raised significant objections to plans to toughen the Online Safety bill. A cabinet consultation on the proposals ended on February 17.

“This stuff is hugely popular with the public and also with media executives,” said one Tory strategist, noting that Conservative-supporting newspapers have campaigned for tougher policing of the internet.

One Conservative official said that US tech companies were “a very attractive punchbag at the moment” for politicians hoping to curry favor with the public.

In the letter, seen by the FT, Dorries and Patel admitted their proposals would “likely be controversial with the tech industry” and that they expected criticism “that we are undermining safeguards for users’ rights and weakening the protections for tech companies against lawsuits” .

But the two ministers added that they would make clear the government’s approach would be “pro-innovation” and would protect users’ rights, while “requiring the tech industry to take responsibility for harms”.

TechUK, a trade group that counts Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook among its members, argued that the planned changes to so-called “intermediate liability” would set “concerning precedents”.

“None of these proposals have been consulted on with industry which is a poor way to draft legislation at this late stage,” said Antony Walker, deputy chief of TechUK, who added that the plan “goes against international legal norms”.

Details of the specific harmful material being targeted would be set out in detailed secondary legislation, but is expected to include content that encourages self-harm or eating disorders.

Damian Collins, a Tory MP who chaired a committee looking at the bill, said: “The role of companies is not only to remove this material but to take steps to reasonably identify it and remove it themselves.”

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