Government continues its drive for a ‘Digital Charter’

The government has called on technology companies, charities, communities and international partners to help it develop a brand new ‘Digital Charter’.

The idea of a charter was first posited in the Conservative manifesto, and now looks set to be realised after making an appearance in the Queen’s Speech. It would – just as Magna Carta established political liberties back in the 13th century – establish online freedoms that work and are suitable for the modern age. Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that, by tightening up digital security, the UK could become the safest place in the world to be online.

Whilst the government maintained that it strongly supports a “free and open internet”, the argument was made that “freedoms online must be balanced with protections”. As such, it promised not to shy away from tackling harmful behaviours and content online. The government also pledged to “make sure that technology companies do more to protect their users and improve safety online.”

Social media sites are expected to come under the greatest scrutiny, with the government believing these to be the worst offenders for failing to protect users.

There wouldn’t just be rules in place to govern internet providers, though, but also penalties for those which do not comply. A sanctions regime could be introduced to give regulators the ability “to fine or prosecute those companies that fail in their legal duties, and to order the removal of content where it clearly breaches UK law.”

To rather little surprise, however, the charter has come under fire from civil rights groups. They argue that steps need to be taken in order to ensure everything is done properly and in a way that benefits the government without undermining the privacy of typical web users.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group said that balance is needed to ensure internet companies are given as much incentive to protect free speech as they are for removing illegal content. To do this, he argued, the charter’s regulatory frame would need to include “independent or judicial oversight of material that is taken down by internet companies.”

With EU and UK lawmakers at odds over privacy – and the complexity that Brexit negotiations will have over the issue – it’s likely the charter may have to go through much scrutiny before (or even if) it’s eventually enshrined in law.