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Regulating the internet: an open inquiry by the House of Lords

Written by Alex Baker on 26 July 2018

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The internet serves as a vast, multi-functional platform for the creation and spread of knowledge and ideas in a way never previously thought possible. Its introduction has resulted in an utterly profound shift in the way in which humans live at a fundamental level. However, such a powerful and pervasive piece of technology has necessary implications for its regulation in order to leverage some semblance of control over its capabilities. Indeed, the issue concerns the question not of what is possible using the internet, but what should be possible.

The issue has once again been brought into the limelight in part thanks to the House of Lords Communication Committee’s open inquiry into how regulation of the internet should be improved, at least within the UK. The inquiry has been receiving responses since it was launched earlier this year from commerical companies, NGOs, and individual experts in order to gather the information it could use to develop improved methods for regulating how the internet is used.

The inquiry has come at a crucial time when platforms such as Facebook experience hostility for its role in enabling the data exploitation and ‘fake news’ activities of organisations such as Cambridge Analytica during the EU Referendum and 2016 US Presidential Election. Indeed, some of the primary issues the inquiry seeks to address is the extent of the liability of such online platforms for the content that is hosted on their websites, including their capabilities to monitor and remove such content, as well as the transparency surrounding how its users’ personal data is used (think the recent GDPR upheaval).

Certain responses to the inquiry have also seen calls for the introduction of a single regulatory body to govern the internet. The Times, for example, recently called for the creation of a statutory regulator labelled ‘Ofnet’, as it argues that internet users “bothered by hate, harassment, porn, paedophilia, extremism or commercial chicanery online have next to nothing”. It posits the establishment of a comprehensive system overseen by a single regulatory body as opposed to the current piecemeal regulation. Of course, there are a few problems that arise with this proposal. One is how such a body would likely lack the rigorous evidential rules found within legal proceedings; a diminished standard of proof would lead to the unnecessary censorship of content. Second, and related to this, is how companies might be incentivized to immediately remove any content whenever it receives a complaint regardless of its merits due to the strict obligations and risk of heavy penalties – strong concerns surrounding the maintenance of freedom of speech arise here. Another problem relates to the scale of the internet, whereby the possibility for one regulatory body to monitor its entirety is simply not pragmatic. It could instead be possible that this body regulates the procedures of online companies, as opposed to the specific items that are uploaded onto their websites, in a process of ‘regulating the regulators’. Evidently this is a particular issue that requires profound and exact consideration before any judgements and actions are made.

It appears this controversial issue of regulating the internet is certainly not going to dissipate anytime soon, as debates rage on about how best to accomplish regulation without limiting the ability of the internet to operate the way it does. The House of Lords says it intends to release its findings by the end of this year, and it will certainly be interesting to see how the future of the internet may be dictated following the potential implementation of various regulatory instruments that could arise in the not too distant future.

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