New laws to require websites to ‘proactively seek and remove’ Russian disinformation

Updated legislation will apply to social networks and search engines

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Updated laws will require social networks and search engines to “proactively look for and remove disinformation” disseminated by the Russian state and other hostile nations.

Government announced this week that the National Security Bill is to be updated to include a new criminal offence of ‘foreign interference’. This amendment is being made in light of growing concerns over the impact of disinformation – particularly as it relates to Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, according to the government.

“[This] will make it illegal for a person to engage in conduct for, on behalf of or with intent to benefit a foreign power in a way which interferes in UK rights, discredits our democratic intuitions, manipulates people’s participation in them and undermines the safety or interests of the UK,” the government said.

The proposed national security law – which is currently going through committee examination in the House of Commons – will also be amended to provide a “link… with the Online Safety Bill”, which is also working its way through parliament’s lower chamber.

This connection will mean the internet safety laws will include the new foreign interference office among its specified “priority offences”.

“It means social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites allowing people to post their own content will have a legal duty to take proactive, preventative action to identify and minimise people’s exposure to state-sponsored or state-linked disinformation aimed at interfering with the UK,” said a statement from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. “This includes tackling material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of foreign states to influence democratic or legal processes, such as elections and court proceedings, or spread hacked information to undermine democratic institutions.”

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The “procactive” measures sites will be expected to take will include “risk assessments” to identify content that might constitute deliberate interference from a hostile foreign state. Tech firms will also be required to implement “proportionate systems and processes” to try and reduce the chances of users encountering such content.

“This could include measures such as making it more difficult to create large scale fake accounts or tackling the use of bots in malicious disinformation campaigns,” DCMS said.

Content moderation of suspected state-sponsored disinformation should, in particular, consider its “intended effect”, the government advised. Websites should make judgements informed by “patterns of behaviours and tactics used, or aided by relevant knowledge of the political and geopolitical context”.

Ofcom, which is take on responsibility for regulating online harms, will publish a code of practice to help companies understand their legal responsibilities. Breaches of these obligations could result in fines equivalent to up to 10% of a company’s global turnover – which would currently equate to more than £20bn in the case of Google, £10bn for Facebook, and £400m for Twitter.

DCMS secretary Nadine Dorries said: “The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponise social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions, often targeting the very victims of its aggression. We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets to use the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded. That’s why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.”

Disinformation is defined by government as false or misleading information deliberately spread for political, ideological, or malicious reasons. It is distinct from misinformation, which is defined as falsehoods spread unknowingly or inadvertently – often by individual website users.


Sam Trendall

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