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The British government introduced legislation on Thursday designed to “make the UK the safest place to go online”, but its wide-ranging Online Safety Bill also threatens free speech and the business models of major tech companies, according to its critics.
The bill addresses online harms, from bullying and fraud to child abuse, in an ambitious and contentious attempt to force Big Tech companies to police their networks. Their executives could face jail sentences if they fail to comply with some elements of the new regime marshalled by Ofcom, report Tim Bradshaw and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe.
The media and telecoms regulator will also have the power to audit the algorithms that govern what consumers see in their search results and social media feeds from Google and Facebook.
The bill could become law later this year, but the details of one of its most controversial elements — a requirement for the biggest internet platforms to police so-called “legal but harmful” abuses such as racism or bullying — will only be set out later through secondary legislation.
Additions since the original draft include new duties to prevent online fraud perpetrated through paid adverts and the criminalisation of “cyber flashing”, whereby people expose themselves to strangers online. Calls to ban anonymous users from major internet platforms altogether, in order to combat trolls, were ultimately rejected by the government. Instead, social media users will be given the ability to block every account that has not verified their offline identity.
The Open Rights Group, a civil liberties campaigner, described the proposals as an “Orwellian Censorship Machine” and said powers to imprison social media executives mirrored those exercised by Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the bill’s scope remained unwieldy and its proposals would mean tech companies playing safe and removing content with “potentially disastrous consequences for our public debate as legal content is censored just for being potentially ‘harmful’ in the eyes of the platforms”.
Daniel Pryor, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute think-tank, concluded: “The Online Safety Bill was an illiberal, incoherent, anti-innovation mess when it was first introduced as a White Paper in 2019. After nearly three years of parliamentary debate and scrutiny, it is still an illiberal, incoherent, anti-innovation mess.”
The Internet of (Five) Things
1. Amazon seals MGM deal and battles Ambani in India
Amazon has closed its deal to acquire film studio MGM after US and European competition regulators declined to block the move, despite growing concern over the ecommerce giant’s size. Meanwhile, in India, Mukesh Ambani and Jeff Bezos are fighting a court case that has the potential to shape the future of retailing in the country of 1.4bn consumers. Here in the UK, a decade after her groundbreaking investigation, Sarah O’Connor returns to the small British town of Rugeley to find out what has changed since Amazon opened its vast warehouse there.
2. Truphone distances itself from Russian oligarch
The British telecoms group in which Roman Abramovich holds one of his biggest UK investments has distanced itself from the billionaire who has been hit with sanctions by parting ways with one of its most senior directors. Andre De Cort, an associate of Abramovich, terminated his directorship at Truphone on Monday.
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3. Ukraine and the truth about war
In spite of Russia’s media crackdown and the passions inflamed by war, Wikipedia’s Russian language page on the current invasion remains fact-filled and comprehensive. In places it diverges markedly from the Kremlin’s account, writes John Thornhill. Elsewhere, Russians have been saying farewell to their Instagram accounts, business is at last collaborating on cyber security, and tech entrepreneurs and investors are complaining of struggling to win significant business from the Pentagon, writes Richard Waters.
4. Deliveroo eyes profitability as Getir raises $800mn
Deliveroo shares rallied on Thursday after Will Shu, chief executive, set out a plan for the London-based food app to reach underlying profitability by mid-2024. It’s just been passed in valuation by Getir, the rapid grocery delivery service, which has raised nearly $800mn in new funds at a valuation of $11.8bn.
5. Spotify plans to join NFT craze
Spotify is drawing up plans to add blockchain technology and non-fungible tokens to its streaming service. Music’s use of NFTs could include selling digital albums or using them to unlock perks at gigs, from merchandise to backstage passes. Mark Zuckerberg, Meta chief, said this week that the ability to show off your NFTs would be coming soon to Instagram.
Tech tools — Spotify’s Car Thing
Spotify has only got to the point of hiring staff for its NFT efforts, but it has some real-world hardware now on sale in the US in the shape of its $90 Car Thing. The mountable unit has a dial to steer to songs, stations and playlists on its display, but is also voice enabled for hands-free operation. The device plays through connecting to your phone, which is connected to your car’s audio system. Four preset buttons provide shortcuts to favourite artists, playlists, stations or podcasts. Engadget questions its usefulness and says Car Thing is more of a controller for the app on your phone.
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