The UK’s online laws could be the future of the internet—and that’s got people worried

Technology giants will be forced to have a “duty of care” for their users, if a proposal announced by the government on Monday becomes law.

The proposal—a “white paper,” in UK legal parlance, which is one of the first stages of a formal government policy—is, on the surface at least, sweeping in scope and is a serious shot across the bows for big tech companies. But it has also raised some serious concerns about how it will be implemented and the possible consequences it might have on citizens’ free speech.

Aiming to tackle well-defined harms such as hate crime, stalking, and terrorist activity alongside issues such as trolling and disinformation, the UK government proposes combining work done across eight or more separate regulators into one.

This new “super-regulator” could have powers to fine technology companies according to their revenue, or even to block them. It could also be able to prosecute individual executives. The proposed body could be funded either by an industry levy or from the proceeds of any enforcement fines it imposed.

The proposals have raised interest among academics and observers, and alarm among privacy campaigners. The former note that while the document is scant on details despite being tens of thousands of words long, it sets out a clear direction in a way few countries have been willing to do.

But the latter fear that the way it is implemented could easily lead to censorship for users of social networks rather than curbing the excesses of the networks themselves. Such impressions were not helped when Home Secretary Sajid Javid endorsed the concept, at least, of pre-moderating content before it was published. “The government’s proposals would create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens,” says Jim Killock, executive director of digital privacy advocates, Open Rights Group.

According to Eric Kind, a surveillance consultant and lecturer, the UK proposals affirm a duty of care to users as “the central idea and…