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Report urges UK government to step up online security measures

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LONDON – Proposed UK rules to crack down on harmful online content should be bolstered with tougher measures, such as making it illegal to send unsolicited graphic images, requiring pornographic sites to ensure that children cannot access it and act faster to hold technical executives criminally accountable for not complying with regulations, lawmakers said in a new report.

The committee of lawmakers on Tuesday recommended a series of major changes to the UK government’s online safety bill that would make digital and social media companies more responsible for protecting users from child abuse, content racist and other harmful content found on their platforms.

Proposals from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and similar rules the European Union is working on underscore how Europe is at the forefront of the global movement to harness the power of digital giants like Google and society. mother of Facebook Meta Platforms.

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The UK lawmakers’ committee is reviewing the bill to come up with recommendations on how the government can improve it before it goes to parliament next year for approval.

“The era of big tech self-regulation is over,” said committee chairman Damian Collins. “Businesses are clearly accountable for the services they design and benefit from, and must be held accountable for the decisions they make. . “

The committee heard testimony from tech executives, researchers and whistleblowers such as former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen, whose revelations alleging the company puts profit over safety galvanized legislative and regulatory efforts in around the world to crack down on online hate speech and disinformation.

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Under the proposed rules, the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom would be appointed to investigate internet companies for any violations, with the power to impose fines of up to £ 18million ($ 24million). ) or 10% of a company’s annual turnover, whichever is greater. .

Criminal offenses should be established to cover new online crimes such as cyber flashing – sending unsolicited graphic images to someone – or sending flashing images to a person with epilepsy with the intent to provoke a crisis, according to the report.

Internet companies would be expected to follow codes of conduct in areas such as child exploitation and terrorism and would be required to conduct risk assessments for algorithms recommending videos and other content to users that could lead them into. “rabbit holes” filled with false information.

To protect children from accessing online pornography, websites should use “age assurance” technology to ensure that users are old enough to be on the site, according to the report. To allay concerns it would lead to data entry by big tech companies dominating verification systems, the report advised Ofcom to set standards to protect privacy and limit the amount of information they can. collect.

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One of the most controversial parts of the UK government’s proposal is a provision holding top executives of internet companies criminally liable for failing to provide regulators with the information necessary to assess whether they are complying with the rules, which would come into effect. effective after a two-year review. period.

This has raised fears that tech companies are using the time to slow down instead of complying, prompting digital minister Nadine Dorries to pledge to get there “in a much shorter time frame” of up to six months. – what the committee supported.

However, digital rights groups and tech companies have warned the provision could have unintended consequences. Google said it would be an incentive for businesses to use automated systems to remove content “on a large scale” to protect themselves from lawsuits.

Authoritarian countries could view UK rules as a justification for threatening staff to suppress political speeches and journalistic content their leaders dislike, Nick Pickles, senior director of public policy strategy, told the committee in October global Twitter.

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The government has two months to respond to the committee’s report before presenting it to Parliament for approval.

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Follow Kelvin Chan on Twitter.

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