United Kingdom lawmakers hope Biden leaves their tech rules alone
The U.S. could propose extending protections for its digital platforms in a trade agreement with Britain.,
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LONDON — Britain’s lawmakers hope their plans to regulate Big Tech via an online harms law won’t get in the way of a much-prized post-Brexit transatlantic trade deal.
Starting this summer, Parliament is expecting to examine the tech regulation bill that would impose a so-called duty of care to users of platforms like Google and Facebook, with the power to impose big fines if they fail.
But there is growing concern that restrictions for platforms in the U.K. could rub up against the so-called Section 230 code in U.S. law that protects tech platforms from liability over hosted content.
Washington has previously imposed demands to respect Section 230 in trade agreements, namely the North American trade pact it signed with Canada and Mexico under former president Donald Trump and a U.S.-Japan trade deal.
While President Joe Biden’s administration has yet to say if it would continue to impose such carve-outs in future trade deals, previous efforts to do so have received bipartisan support in Congress.
In an effort to get ahead of any potential problems, some U.K. lawmakers are now calling for safeguards to avoid the possibility of a Section 230 carve-out in any potential US-UK trade bill.
“It should be absolutely a condition of the online safety bill that it is not undermined by any future trade deal and that is something that I think that many colleagues will support,” said Beeban Kidron, founder and chair of 5Rights, an advocacy group, and a crossbench member of the House of Lords.
Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry echoed the view: “We need to be clear with any potential trade partners that if their internet companies want to provide services in our country, then they will be bound by our rules, full stop.”
In a sign of how concerned some MPs are, former culture secretaries Jeremy Wright and Karen Bradley, both MPs in the ruling Conservative Party, reportedly put their names to a letter calling on Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, to give assurances that the final deal will not give U.S. tech giants immunity from U.K. regulations such as the duty of care bill.
‘Talking the same language’
U.K. ministers are leaving nothing to chance with a lobbying effort lined up when U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Biden meet at a G7 gathering in June.
British and U.S. officials say the upcoming meeting in Cornwall will allow both sides to lay out their wider goals on how to tackle the growing list of problems associated with Big Tech.
“When we have the detailed proposals set out, there will undoubtedly be some engagement around digital regulation at the G7,” said a government official familiar with ministerial discussions around the legislation, but not authorized to speak on the record.
U.K. officials appear to be heartened by Biden’s tough talk on tech. He has called for the repeal of the crucial set of liability protections that shield online companies from lawsuits over the user content they host.
Concerns about Section 230 and a future U.S. trade deal were “unfounded,” the official said. Officials in the Department for International Trade had not raised the alarm with the digital department, which is drafting the legislation, nor had the U.S. administration, they added.
During a debate on trade legislation discussing the threat in the U.K. parliament in January, Minister for Investment Gerry Grimstone insisted no free trade agreement would be able to overturn the legislation.
Antony Walker, Deputy Chief Executive of the techUK lobby, pointed out that the U.K. had obtained exceptions around measures to uphold public safety in its trade agreements with Japan and the EU.
“We would not expect a U.K.-U.S. trade deal to be any different,” he added.
Leaving nothing to chance
Other legislators and experts are more cautious about putting their trust in Biden.
“There is no actual indication that [putting Section 230 into trade deals] will stop under Biden. We hope it does, we urge him to do so, but he has not said that yet, and so the U.K. cannot operate on the basis that Biden is Mr. Nice on trade,” Kidron, the House of Lords member, said.
While there are calls from some U.S. lawmakers for Section 230 to be modified, or even reversed, Anupam Chander, a professor and expert on the global regulation of new technologies at Georgetown Law, said the issue was still being “hashed out”.
“There is obviously the reality that many American companies depend on Section 230 for their existence and so they would like to see that as part of our international trade deals as well,” Chander said.
Asked about the matter during her Senate confirmation process, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai gave few clues as to whether she would refrain from including the provision in future trade deals.
“There are a wide variety of views on this issue, and I commit to consulting with relevant stakeholders, including Congress, on this and other provisions of our trade agreements,” she said.
It is also currently unclear how soon the U.S. and U.K. will conclude any trade deal. The window of opportunity for a quick agreement closes on July 1 under a U.S. law called Trade Promotion Authority.
Duty of care
Chander also pointed out potential risks in the U.K.’s duty of care proposal.
“If it’s a broad, kind of diffuse duty of care, you just have to make sure nothing bad happens on your system. I think that would violate this intermediary liability limitation, which is designed to say, essentially, that these are tools and the tool makers aren’t liable for their many uses by people across the world,” Chander added.
But the U.K. official familiar with the drafting of the legislation believes concerns have been addressed.
“It is not about every individual piece of content. It is about processes. Do you have a complaints procedure? What are your algorithms looking for in terms of harmful content? You couldn’t make them responsible for every piece of content without breaking social media,” the official said.
“It does strike the right balance,” they added of the draft law.
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