UK could rethink social media laws after Brexit, says minister

Brexit could free up Britain to impose world-leading regulations on technology companies, the culture secretary has said. Matt Hancock argued that when Britain left the EU it would no longer be bound by regulations such as the e-commerce directive, allowing it to write new “forward-looking” legislation for social media platforms.

He told the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee: “Outside the EU, we could attempt, as this country is quite good at in lots of different areas, to write really forward-looking legislation that supports the innovation and the freedom that these social media platforms bring but also ensures they mitigate better against the harms.

“Currently the e-commerce directive in the European Union says that they are a mere conduit. We are going to leave the EU, so this may be an opportunity to write a set of laws that are absolutely right for the modern times, that allow us get this balance right at the same time. At the moment, without changing the e-commerce directive, you can’t do that.”

Hancock suggested one area in which Britain might lead the way was by establishing a new set of laws placing social media companies halfway between traditional platforms and publishers. “The current law is that they are mere conduits,” he said. “That law was put in place to stop the people who were responsible for the wiring being responsible for what went over the wiring.

“It was designed with Openreach [a telecoms infrastructure company] in mind, and then there was a legal case when it was decided that it applied to the platforms was well. At the moment, the debate takes place between these two – are they one extreme or are they another? – and there’s very good arguments to say that they are neither one extreme nor the other.”

He suggested that competition law was another area where post-Brexit Britain could diverge from the EU. “At the moment European competition law is … based on a world of widgets,” he said. “There’s another opportunity to have a really big look at how we run competition policy in the UK in the light of the changing technology and the fact that many of the innovations of our time have zero marginal cost.”

The DCMS committee is investigating the impact of fake news on British politics, and members of the committee have repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the limited cooperation offered by technology executives.

Hancock said the government “should also not rule out legislative options to insist on the transparency of platforms in this area”. He added: “That isn’t somewhere we have yet concluded is necessary, and I hope that it isn’t, because they can come to the table voluntarily much quicker than it’ll take to legislate, but of course we’re prepared to do that.”

One reason the minister may not be eager to legislate against people running social media platforms is that he is one. “I have an app for my constituents,” he noted. “I can’t be liable for what they publish, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to allow them to publish it, because I can only be liable for what I publish.”