Essay Information

The below article was extracted from The Times on 17 October 2019

'Ministers published a landmark “online harms” white paper in April that set out plans for “world-leading” measures to keep UK internet users safe online. At their heart, suggested the government, should be a beefed-up regulatory framework.

However, any intervention by the government in the free exchange of comment is bound to attract suspicion. The question for this year’s Times student essay competition, sponsored by One Essex Court, is: Taming the social media giants — how far should the state go in regulating online content?’

With more than £10,000 of prizes on offer to the six finalists and the prospect of having their entry read by the Lord Chancellor and senior members of the judiciary, as well as the editor of The Times, this is an opportunity for student commentators to tackle one of the trickiest political and social issues of our age.

The creators of the internet had an idealistic vision of the potential for free exchange of information around the world. Little did they anticipate that it could become a vehicle for spreading hate, intimidation and “fake news”.

The role of the social media platforms are increasingly at the centre of the debate, heightened earlier this month by the announcement — to the displeasure of the home secretary and the US attorney-general — that Facebook is planning to encrypt all its messaging services.

So what — if anything — should be done?

“There is room for a broad array of views about the appropriate level of regulation,” says Conall Patton, a barrister with One Essex Court. “At one end of the spectrum is the status quo, under which platforms are not liable for illegal content unless they know about it, while the individuals who actually post the harmful content may be exposed to a variety of criminal or civil penalties.”

Patton points out that the government’s proposal is for social media companies to owe a duty to take reasonable care to protect their users, enforceable by an independent regulator. “Some may argue, however,” he says, “that this does not go far enough and advocate a regime of strict liability, recognising that social media companies have powerful technological tools at their disposal and may have the ability to prevent harmful content from being transmitted in the first place.”

The internet is not a regulation-free zone. Already the Communications Act 2003, which covers offensive and threatening messages, is used extensively to arrest and prosecute individuals for messages posted on Twitter and Facebook. The Data Protection Act 2018 gives individuals power to control their own personal data.

Therefore, it could be argued that adequate legislation is in place and gets results. Why fix it when it ain’t broke? We don’t want to create an overweening bureaucracy that would have a chilling effect on individuals’ freedom of expression — not least because the seminal European Court of Human Rights case of Handyside made clear that this includes the right to say things that “offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population”.

However, the argument becomes tangled when viewed from the perspective of campaigners. For example, anti-vaccination activists have derived great influence by their use of social media. Concerns over a decline in vaccination rates may lead to a future regulator deciding to clamp down on vaccination scare stories via social media. Is that to be wished for or avoided at all costs?

Many would say that without doubt fake news must be combatted. However, if powers are given to regulators to constrain it, will that inevitably lead to abuse?

As Global Risk Intelligence, a consultancy, pointed out in a recent report: “Since the Arab Spring revolution in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011, government-imposed internet shutdowns have become a popular tool to control the behaviour and communication of their citizens.

“Government authorities commonly contact internet services providers, which are often state-owned corporations licensed by the government, to cut or limit access to the internet or selected applications.”

Would that be the best approach for the UK?

By contrast, victims of discriminatory posts may say that the point has been passed when society can still tolerate a reactive approach. A more interventionist policy is needed by the government to ensure that the technology companies behave proactively to protect the public.

The competition is open to all students registered with UK higher education institutes. Essays should be no more than 1,000 words and must be received by November 29. For the full rules and how to enter go to: oeclaw.co.uk/times-law-awards'