UK public favours internet regulation for greater safety

15 December 2022 4 min. read
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As debate over the Online Safety Bill rages in the UK, public sentiment broadly favours regulation of the internet. However, some critics worry that legislation currently being pushed through Parliament will make online life less secure, while also eroding individual privacy, and rights around free speech.

A new study from PA Consulting has found that in a politically and economically volatile era for the UK, more consumers believe regulators should play a role in their daily lives. Since PA’s last regulators’ survey in 2018 the societal and regulatory landscape has changed significantly – but the 2,000 citizens and 500 leaders in regulated business the researchers surveyed believe there is still more work to be done.

Generally, 84% of citizens report feeling more worried and fearful about the future than they did three years ago, and want regulators to address these concerns. One of the most prominent fears of this kind sees an 80% portion of citizens state they are looking for more action from regulators in the realm of the internet.

UK public favours internet regulation for greater safety

Conrad Thompson, regulation and innovation expert at PA Consulting, commented, “In this turbulent time it is no surprise that our research shows that people want regulators to protect them from a whole range of threats. Forward-thinking regulators have an opportunity to show their worth to politicians by proactively building and promoting trust, growth, and innovation in the areas that matter most to citizens and business.”

Illustrating how keen the UK is for regulation, the usually laissez faire sensibilities of the business community even favoured greater levels of intervention. Over 76% of businesses said they respected regulators – an increase of 22% since PA’s 2018 survey – but also that they feel regulators don’t always act fast enough. A 72% portion believe regulators respond slowly, and while 73% said they are largely reactive. All in all, this suggests businesses would favour more pro-active, rapid guidance in a difficult time.

Divisive bill

However, while clamour mounts for regulation of online life in the UK, some are also fearful that the Government may be implementing the wrong changes. The Online Safety Bill is a proposed Act of the Parliament of the UK, intended to improve internet safety. It aims to designate and address a wide range of potentially harmful content, which includes online trolling, illegal pornography and underage access to legal pornography, and some forms of internet fraud.

Among the ways the Online Safety Bill currently aims to make its remit workable is by empowering law enforcement to access encrypted messages – via services such as WhatsApp. Critics argue that by forcing an end to encrypted communication, the Government would be making the data of citizens more vulnerable to cyber-attackers – which would be the opposite of making online life safer – while potentially building surveillance infrastructure that could be used to infringe on individual privacy – or even crack down on dissidents – in the future. Countries which currently ban WhatsApp because its encrypted messages make monitoring of citizens opinions more difficult include China, Syria and Qatar.

Erica Portnoy, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Senior Staff Technologist, described the Online Safety Bill as "a disaster for user privacy" on this basis. She added that "scanning private content is incompatible with encryption, and endangers the rights of all users, including children". If the bill becomes law, she therefore expects it won’t just affect the UK – it will be used as “a blueprint for repression around the world”.

Despite there being plenty of opposition to the bill, none has come from the official Parliamentary opposition. Keir Starmer and the Labour front-bench have thrown their weight behind the legislation, too. A Labour amendment tabled suggested an additional ban for the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) – a privacy mechanism extending a private network across a public network, enabling users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network. Again, the UK would be following in the footsteps of nations like China in the banning of VPNs, something which has unnerved human rights advocates.  

However, the Government is currently unmoved by this – issuing comment that encryption losing out is a price worth paying to “protect children from exploitation.” A Spokesperson told The Telegraph that “end-to-end encryption cannot be allowed to hamper efforts to catch perpetrators of the most serious crimes”.