UK to introduce internet safety laws within 'next couple of years'

Social networks may be on the hook for exposing kids to online bullying.

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Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via Reuters
Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via Reuters

The UK government is acting on its vow to make the internet safer... whether or not companies like the idea. In the wake of the Internet Safety Green Paper, Digital Secretary Matt Hancock has unveiled plans for online safety laws that will tackle cyberbullying, child exploitation, extremism and other "legal and illegal harms." Government ministries, charities and the public will work together on a white paper later in 2018 that will "set out" the legislation, with Hancock expecting the laws to be ready within the "next couple of years."

The actual nature of these laws is unsurprisingly vague at this stage. However, Hancock pointed to an in-progress data protection bill that could fine companies up to 4 percent of their global turnover if they didn't do enough to safeguard users. In a chat with the BBC, Hancock added that he was "very worried" that some underage children managed to obtain social network accounts and wanted age verification to be mandatory.

The one certainty: officials don't believe internet companies are pulling enough weight. The government claimed that many users "feel powerless" to tackle safety issues, and that 60 percent of those asked said they'd seen "inappropriate or harmful" material. Hancock also lashed out at the companies' reported lack of cooperation, noting that only four out of 14 showed up when invited to talks.

Whether or not the legislation lives up to the claims is another story. The UK just had to delay age verification for porn sites, for example -- it's easy to promise strictly enforced age limits and reduced cyberbullying, but implementing restrictions is seldom that simple. It's also unclear how (or if) the laws will factor in concerns about freedom and privacy. The white paper should help, but it may take much longer than that to get a clearer picture of how this will affect everyday lives.

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