The regulation of social media is a complex and challenging issue. In this article, we consider some of the challenges of regulating social media and where the UK is currently at on its journey to introduce targeted legislation.

Three key challenges of regulating social media

There are a number of challenges which need to be addressed when seeking to regulate social media. These include:

Regulation of social media in the UK

The UK government has been considering the regulation of social media in the UK for some time. In 2018, the government published a white paper on online harms, which proposed a number of measures to regulate social media platforms. These measures included:

The government’s proposals were met with mixed reactions. Some people welcomed the government’s intervention, arguing that social media platforms have not done enough to remove harmful content from their platforms. Others expressed concerns that the government’s proposals could restrict free speech.

The planned Online Safety Bill

Following the government’s consultation to its white paper, in April 2022, the government introduced the Online Safety Bill, which is a proposed law that would regulate social media platforms in the UK. The bill is still passing through Parliament (at the time of writing the bill is at the third reading stage in the House of Lords).

If passed, the bill will likely require social media platforms to take a number of steps to protect users from harmful content, including:

The bill is also likely to give Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, the power to fine social media platforms up to £18 million or 10% of their global annual turnover, whichever is higher, if they fail to comply with the regulations.

Whilst the bill is a significant step forward in the UK’s efforts to regulate social media, it is not without its controversy. In particular, recent proposed amendments by the House of Lords, which require social media platforms to monitor content for illicit material, could potentially undermine end-to-end encryption in instant messages such as WhatsApp and have caused some big social media companies to claim the bill could: (1) create a significant vulnerability that will be exploited by hackers, hostile nation states and those wishing to do harm; and (2) damage the UK’s ability to attract and retain tech development companies.

In response, the government has insisted that the bill does not threaten encryption, that systems are in place to prevent government intrusion and that the bill will not be used to encroach on private messages.

Only time will tell whether Parliament will listen to the concerns raised by some social media companies. Whatever final form the bill takes, it is unlikely to become law in the UK before next summer.