Internet regulation debates need rules of engagement. Here’s a start.

UK policy
A still frame from the film "The Post" showing an old printing press, loaded with type blocks which say "free to publish"

The UK’s Online Safety Bill debate is currently in the very dangerous territory where any number of proposed curtailments on what we can say and do online, whatever we have to say, and wherever we say it, are being whatabouted as “yeah, but Facebook.”

The past week saw our politicians abandoning any pretense that a sweepingly authoritarian law which will curtail everything we can say and do online, whatever we have to say and wherever we say it, has not become a pitiful, petty, and pissy personal spat, and bugger the rest of us.

In fact, the more that some of us need to remind politicians that Facebook is not the internet, the harder they seem to lean into that very idea. And the more that some of us need to remind politicians that they are stuck in a Facebook filter bubble of their own, the deeper they dig themselves into it.

It’s almost to the point where I feel that this debate needs some common-sense rules of engagement. Terms and conditions, if you like. A simple scaffolding to help maintain a little bit of perspective in a rather myopic debate.

After all, it’s better to bring some sense to the debate now than pass a bad law which will be struck down at the first judicial review, isn’t it?

So here’s a start on rules of engagement for internet regulation, which very much reflect the current (and pitiful) state of the debate here in the UK, but which I’m sure apply elsewhere.

(In fact, I kind of feel like I need to wrap this in Union Jack emojis and call it “world leading” so that DCMS can get moist over it, but I have my own standards too.)

Rules of Engagement

You are permitted to have whatever rightful concerns you have about Meta/Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Nick Clegg, and all their deeds and words.

You are permitted to constructively utilise whatever positive anger results from those concerns.

You are permitted to act on those concerns in the legislative and regulatory spheres.

You are permitted to use concerns about the issues central to those companies, such as online abuse, electoral manipulation, democratic integrity, etc, as starting points for constructive regulatory solutions.

You are permitted to evaluate those concerns against the benchmarks established by the rule of law, judicial review, human rights law, existing criminal statutes, international agreements, and best practice standards.

You are permitted to hold whatever personal opinions you wish about the individuals who lead those companies as well. (I certainly do.)

Finally, you are permitted to devise regulatory solutions which take into account the needs of startups, smaller businesses, freelancers, and aspirant competitors, in ways that permit them to grow and compete without Facebook-sized regulatory burdens. You are also permitted to devise regulatory solutions which assume the positive intent of the people behind these initiatives.

What you are not permitted to do is to attempt to legislate the internet, as a whole, around Meta/Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Nick Clegg.

What you are not permitted to do is to take down the open web, the content we share on it, the contacts we make, and the conduct we engage in, whatever we say and wherever we say it, as collateral damage, en route to “getting” Meta/Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Nick Clegg.

What you are not permitted to do is to make your regulatory actions about “getting” Meta/Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Nick Clegg, full stop.

What you are not permitted to do is to devise regulatory actions which go outside the realm of the rule of law, judicial review, human rights law, existing criminal statutes, international agreements, and best practice standards, using whataboutery as the justification for bypassing those internationally agreed norms.

What you are not permitted to do is to devise regulatory actions which treat all companies, including SMEs and aspirant competitors, as Facebook, which presume active complicity in Facebook-sized offences, and which presume the Facebook-sized criminality of the people behind these initiatives.

What you are not permitted to do is to make the public debate an obsessive, myopic, and ad-hominem vendetta, one borne out of wild west sheriff and/or white saviour fantasies rather than an interest in the public good.

Above all, what you are not permitted to do is to hijack the necessary and legitimate dialogue about online harms, internet regulation, online safety, and democratic integrity which should be (and is currently not) taking place, by making that dialogue a vehicle for your own craving for attention, publicity, and power.


At the end of writing that, my thought is: imagine how much good we all could be doing right now if we weren’t having to write things like that.

But we do.

The Author

I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. I'm currently searching for my next tech policy role, and you should probably sort that.