In Brief

Websites face fines over harmful content

Charities welcome government plans but others say they restrict free speech

Websites could be fined or blocked if they fail to tackle “online harms” such as child abuse, revenge pornography or terrorist propaganda, under new plans from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Ministers are proposing an independent watchdog and a code of practice that tech companies would be legally obliged to follow. Internet bosses would be held liable for breaches, with a possible levy on the industry to fund the regulator.

Announcing the plans, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Wright said: “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over. Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough.”

The Daily Telegraph, which has campaigned for such measures, welcomed the news, saying Britain will now have “the toughest internet laws in the world” and arguing that “there is nothing draconian about wishing to protect children”.

Children's charity NSPCC also applauded the proposals. Chief executive Peter Wanless said they would mean the UK is a “world pioneer” in protecting children online.

However, Matthew Lesh, head of research at free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute, described the proposals as “a historic attack on freedom of speech and the free press,” adding that “the government should be ashamed of themselves for leading the western world in internet censorship”.

Daniel Dyball, UK executive director at trade body the Internet Association, sounded a warning about the “extremely wide” scope of the proposals.

Prime Minister Theresa May said the plans prove that the age of self-regulation is over. "The internet can be brilliant at connecting people across the world - but for too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content," she said.

The death of 14-year-old Molly Russell in 2017 has put the issue of online expressions of self-harm and suicide in the public eye. Her father pointed out that self-harm and suicide are widely promoted on Instagram, something he felt contributed to her killing herself.

The plans are contained in a government white paper that will now go out for a 12-week consultation.

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