Regulation of Social Media in the UK

The regulation of social media is a complex and challenging issue. In this article, we consider some of the challenges of regulating social media and where the UK is currently at on its journey to introduce targeted legislation.

Three key challenges of regulating social media

There are a number of challenges which need to be addressed when seeking to regulate social media. These include:

  • Defining harmful content. What constitutes harmful content is a complex and subjective issue. There is no clear consensus on what content should be regulated, and what should be allowed to remain on social media platforms.
  • Enforcing regulations. Even if it is possible to define harmful content, it can be difficult to enforce regulations against social media platforms. These platforms are often located in countries with different legal systems and it can be difficult to get cooperation from foreign governments.
  • Balancing free speech. Any attempt to regulate social media must balance the need to protect users from harmful content with the need to protect free speech. This is a delicate balance and it is one that is likely to be debated for many years to come.
Regulation of social media in the UK

The UK government has been considering the regulation of social media in the UK for some time. In 2018, the government published a white paper on online harms, which proposed a number of measures to regulate social media platforms. These measures included:

  • Requiring social media platforms to remove harmful content more quickly.
  • Giving users more control over their data and privacy.
  • Requiring social media platforms to do more to protect children from harmful content.

The government’s proposals were met with mixed reactions. Some people welcomed the government’s intervention, arguing that social media platforms have not done enough to remove harmful content from their platforms. Others expressed concerns that the government’s proposals could restrict free speech.

The planned Online Safety Bill

Following the government’s consultation to its white paper, in April 2022, the government introduced the Online Safety Bill, which is a proposed law that would regulate social media platforms in the UK. The bill is still passing through Parliament (at the time of writing the bill is at the third reading stage in the House of Lords).

If passed, the bill will likely require social media platforms to take a number of steps to protect users from harmful content, including:

  • Swiftly removing illegal content from their platforms.
  • Providing users with more control over their data and privacy.
  • Doing more to protect children from harmful content.

The bill is also likely to give Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, the power to fine social media platforms up to £18 million or 10% of their global annual turnover, whichever is higher, if they fail to comply with the regulations.

Whilst the bill is a significant step forward in the UK’s efforts to regulate social media, it is not without its controversy. In particular, recent proposed amendments by the House of Lords, which require social media platforms to monitor content for illicit material, could potentially undermine end-to-end encryption in instant messages such as WhatsApp and have caused some big social media companies to claim the bill could: (1) create a significant vulnerability that will be exploited by hackers, hostile nation states and those wishing to do harm; and (2) damage the UK’s ability to attract and retain tech development companies.

In response, the government has insisted that the bill does not threaten encryption, that systems are in place to prevent government intrusion and that the bill will not be used to encroach on private messages.

Only time will tell whether Parliament will listen to the concerns raised by some social media companies. Whatever final form the bill takes, it is unlikely to become law in the UK before next summer.