UK gov­ern­ment con­sid­ers clas­si­fy­ing Google and Face­book as pub­lish­ers

The Guardian Australia - - Technology - Gra­ham Rud­dick Me­dia ed­i­tor

Karen Bradley, the cul­ture sec­re­tary, has said the gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing chang­ing the le­gal sta­tus of Google, Face­book and other in­ter­net companies amid grow­ing con­cerns about copy­right in­fringe­ment and the spread of ex­trem­ist ma­te­rial on­line.

The in­ter­net groups are con­sid­ered con­duits of in­for­ma­tion rather than pub­lish­ers un­der UK law, mean­ing they have lim­ited re­spon­si­bil­ity for what ap­pears on their sites.

How­ever, the chair­man of the me­dia reg­u­la­tor Of­com said on Tues­day she be­lieved the likes of Google and Face­book were pub­lish­ers, rais­ing the prospect that they could even­tu­ally face more reg­u­la­tion.

Bradley said she was wary of la­belling in­ter­net companies pub­lish­ers but that the gov­ern­ment wanted to find a bal­ance be­tween har­ness­ing the ben­e­fits of the web while mak­ing it safe for users and pro­tect­ing in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty.

“We need to get the bal­ance right so that we have a free vi­brant in­ter­net that we can har­ness all the ben­e­fits from while pro­tect­ing the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty that is ul­ti­mately the thing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates the United King­dom from other parts of the world,” she said.

“I am look­ing into this. I am not sure the pub­lisher def­i­ni­tion in UK law would nec­es­sar­ily work in the way that peo­ple would like it to work. I think it would end up be­ing very re­stric­tive and make the in­ter­net not work in the way we want it to work.

“We need to be care­ful here that what we do is not a sledge­ham­mer to crack a nut – a piece of leg­is­la­tion where we say un­der UK com­mon law these plat­forms are now pub­lish­ers, which could im­pact on free­dom of speech, civil lib­er­ties and the abil­ity of peo­ple to en­joy the ben­e­fits that the in­ter­net brings. But we have to do this in a way that doesn’t al­low harm.”

Bradley made her com­ments as she was speak­ing to MPs on the dig­i­tal, cul­ture, me­dia and sport com­mit­tee. She also said the gov­ern­ment could in­tro­duce new laws to reg­u­late in­ter­net busi­nesses.

Bradley said she wanted the UK to be the “safest place to be on­line” but that she was “clearly not” happy with the sta­tus quo and in­ter­net companies need to do more.

The gov­ern­ment has this week pro­posed that in­ter­net busi­nesses pay for mea­sures to com­bat and raise aware­ness about on­line bul­ly­ing and other web dan­gers. The vol­un­tary levy on lead­ing web play­ers was part of a new in­ter­net safety strat­egy, which also in­cludes pro­pos­als for a code of prac­tice for so­cial me­dia companies.

How­ever, Bradley said she was rul­ing noth­ing out in go­ing fur­ther. “I would like to do as lit­tle leg­isla­tively as pos­si­ble be­cause I think leg­is­la­tion is a blunt in­stru­ment that of­ten doesn’t de­liver what you want it to de­liver. But I don’t rule out bring­ing in new laws if that is what is re­quired,” she said.

The cul­ture sec­re­tary praised in­ter­net companies for be­ing “proac­tive” on erad­i­cat­ing in­de­cent im­ages of chil­dren on­line and said she sensed a will­ing­ness among busi­nesses to do more.

Bradley also an­swered ques­tions from MPs about the BBC, Chan­nel 4 and 21st Cen­tury Fox’s pro­posed takeover of Sky.

Last month Bradley an­nounced she was re­fer­ring the Fox and Sky deal to the Com­pe­ti­tion and Mar­kets Au­thor­ity (CMA) for a six­month in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the grounds of me­dia plu­ral­ity and broad­cast­ing stan­dards. Fox is con­trolled by Ru­pert Mur­doch and his sons Lach­lan and James.

Bradley said she re­ferred the deal be­cause a re­port by Of­com cre­ated “suf­fi­cient un­cer­tainty” about the tie-up. She pledged she would make the fi­nal de­ci­sion on the deal fol­low­ing the CMA in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the ba­sis of ev­i­dence, say­ing: “It is not based on per­sonal emo­tion or feel­ings or views about the peo­ple in­volved.”

Sites such as Google could face greater reg­u­la­tion if treated as pub­lish­ers un­der UK law. Pho­to­graph: Alamy

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