In 1949, HL Mencken famously defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting worry that a person, somewhere, might be glad’. Today, a comparable terror haunts our meant betters: the worry that a person, somewhere, would possibly say what they assume. This is in particular genuine with regards to the net. A gift, in the UK, besides for a few tv capture-up and video-on-demand services, wherein there’s already some regulatory oversight through Ofcom, what appears at the net is largely out of control. As in the world of print and other forms of speech, the net is certainly simply by using the regulation of the land. Within the regulation, you may usually say and publish what you like. But perhaps not for long. Back in September remaining yr, head of Ofcom Sharon White made a speech to the Royal Television Society, saying that this level of online freedom would now not do at all. There become a want to ‘stage the gambling area’ among TV and the net, she stated. By this, of the route, she intended growing controls at the net, no longer rolling again regulation on broadcast media.
Then, earlier this month, the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications produced a disconcerting file known as Regulating in a Digital World. It is low on specifics, excessive on pious denunciations of Big Tech, and totally inimical to a loose trade of thoughts online. Its intention, the committee says, is to the manual the improvement of net law and deal with what it sees as the ‘harms’ of the net. Like Ofcom, the Lords committee rejects the idea that the net is different from different media. It proposes subjecting the internet to a brand new remarkable-regulator called the Digital Authority, which might report to the Cabinet Office. It could have a remit to regulate existing regulators and recommend further extensions to the reach of the law. These policies ‘need to are searching for to attain equivalent results online and offline’. Not handiest that, there have to be ‘accountability’, that means ‘sanctions’ for non-compliance. These sanctions may want to observe to corporations, along with the ‘1/3 sector, agencies, public and regulatory bodies’, and even just ‘users’. At one point, the document demands a ‘duty of care’ be imposed on any online offerings which host or curate consumer-generated content. This responsibility of care ‘would need to be upheld with the aid of a regulator with a complete set of enforcement powers’. It is never made clear what this ‘obligation of care’ would appear to be in practice, however, we can infer that it might contain systems doing away with content this is judged to be dangerous through the regulator. The record shows this ought to be enforced through Ofcom.
All of that is deeply traumatic. Introducing a new internet regulator, and indeed a brand new amazing-regulator could result in elevated complexity, fee, and paperwork. Requiring platforms to police unlawful or ‘harmful’ content material proactively will surely lead them to overly cautious and likely to censor something that might cause hassle. The Lord’s committee record indicates that the unfold of restrictions on free speech from one medium to another is both inevitable and proper. The argument goes that if broadcasting may be regulated to avoid the displaying of offensive or dangerous content, so can also the net. But the law of broadcasting inside the past changed into arguably justifiable on the basis of restrained ability: there had been handiest such a lot of radio frequencies and tv channels to move spherically. But now the net has opened things up notably. Why not put off, rather than upload to, regulations on freedom of expression? The problem is that regulation enthusiasts don’t even understand unfastened speech, not to mention help it. The Lords’ record concurrently expects structures to ‘respect’ our ‘human proper’ to lose speech, at the same time as calling for content to be censored. And in her speech to the Royal Television Society, Ofcom’s Sharon White claimed, apparently with an instantly face, that ‘a long way from undermining freedom of expression, powerful regulation can sell it’. This is the searching-glass world inhabited through our future regulators.