Tackling Online Harms – the UK Government puts forwards its plans

Written by Maeve Walsh, Associate, Carnegie UK Trust

The Online Harms White Paper has been a long time coming. Starting off as the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper in autumn 2017, it was one of the first policy planks of the Government’s “Digital Charter”, a rolling programme of work with dual objectives to make “the UK the best place to start and run a digital business” as well as “the safest place in the world to be online”. When Matt Hancock, then DCMS Secretary of State, launched the Government response to the Green Paper consultation in May 2018, he surprised many with an unequivocal commitment to legislate to deliver on the commitment to online safety. Nearly a year later, having withstood a Departmental reshuffle and interminable buffeting by Brexit, the White Paper has emerged – now jointly owned by DCMS and the Home Office – putting forward ambitious legislative proposals for a statutory duty of care enforced by a powerful independent regulator, brought to life by codes of practice in critical areas.

There are strong parallels between the White Paper proposals and work led by Professor Lorna Woods and William Perrin for Carnegie UK Trust over the past year. Our detailed proposals for a risk-based approach to tackling online harms have, in recent months, also been championed by numerous organisations, from children’s advocates, such as the NSPCC and the Children’s Commissioner, to Parliamentary Select Committees and the Daily Telegraph.

The duty of care is a simple concept that online companies, big or small, should keep people safe. It is aimed at the level of platforms themselves and makes social media and messaging companies – in fact, the White Paper remit includes all services hosting user-generated content – run their systems with safety in mind. After all, everything that appears on a social media platform is there as a result of decisions made by the company that runs it: decisions about their terms of use, their software and the resources put into enforcing those terms and maintaining the software.  Rather than a palliative approach reliant on take down, the duty of care approach makes companies create an environment that does not encourage or reward abusive or criminal behaviour.

This strong focus on safety by design – making sure that a service is safe and tested to be safe before it is launched – also underpins the new Age Appropriate Design Code, launched in draft this week by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and out for consultation until the end of May.

There are areas, though, where the White Paper could have been stronger. Online fraud, intellectual property theft and scams are by far Britain’s biggest property crime, affecting millions of people but with police and trading standards struggling to cope. The Government has explicitly not included these economic crimes in the scope of the new regime – the proposals would have been stronger if they had.

Britain has a long tradition of independent regulation that relies upon evidence and is removed from day to day politics. Our work suggested that OFCOM would be the best candidate for a regulator. It has proven ability to stand up to big global companies and the technical skill to take finely balanced decisions about contentious media. The Commons Science and Technology Select Committee also recommended that OFCOM should be the new regulator for a duty of care with a full suite of powers by October 2019. However, the government has decided to consult on who the new regulator should be, whilst suggesting that it should be OFCOM.

The government has said, quite rightly, that it wants to consider carefully the issues around this new set of proposals. There will be a huge debate and – already – many differing views. The best place for these views to be captured and assessed would be in the new regulator as it prepares to assume powers.  The powers though are now a long way down the track. The White Paper gives no commitment to rapid legislation, and Parliamentary time devoted to Brexit will add a further element of uncertainty. It could be two to three years to get powers in place. This is simply too long.

So, the White Paper is a major step forward in the global fight against online harms and one which has, in principle, broad cross-party support. It’s a welcome attempt to make tech companies fix the plumbing, not just mop-up after a leak – but it looks like it will be a while yet before they are compelled to get to work.

The consultation on the Online Harms White Paper runs until 1 July 2019. Read more on the Carnegie UK Trust work here.

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