Time to act: The Online Harms White Paper

Posted On: 
10th April 2019

Regulating the internet is a notoriously difficult challenge, but the Online Harms White Paper presents an opportunity for industry and users to shape the future of technology regulation.

Credit: 
PA Images

The White Paper: in short 

The light at the end of an 18-month tunnel has finally been reached this week with the publication of the Online Harms White Paper, a collaboration between DCMS and the Home Office to tackle the most grievous crimes on the internet. The Government has been criticised for not acting quickly enough, but a glance at the white paper highlights the extent of the issues they have been attempting to tackle: gang activity, opioid sales, child sexual exploitation, terrorism and online radicalisation, to name a few.

Technology companies have also been vilified for not doing enough to self-regulate harmful content, with high profile cases such as 14-year-old Molly Russell’s suicide, and the live stream of the terror attack in Christchurch dominating headlines. This anger was reiterated by the Home Secretary as he launched the White Paper: “I warned you and you did not do enough”. This perceived failure of self-regulation meant that the Paper includes a mandatory ‘duty of care’, requiring companies to take meaningful steps to remove harmful content from their platforms, echoing previous calls from the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

Penalties for tech companies who fail to abide by the regulations are expected, such as fines, blocking site access, and imposing liability on individual members of senior management. This is one of the areas that the Government is seeking views on in the associated 12-week consultation which will inform final legislative proposals.

Alongside this, the Government have called for an independent regulator to be appointed to enforce the new rules, which may be supported by an industry levy in future. The move was welcomed by heavyweight DCMS Committee chair Damian Collins, although he expressed concern that the Paper does not address the need for transparency for political advertising. For now, that mantle will be taken up by the recently-established Sub-Committee on Disinformation and the Cabinet Office, which is due to publish work on ‘defending democracy’ in due course.

A new dawn?

The White Paper presents a two-pronged opportunity for both technology companies and users.

First, to tech companies. The White Paper zones in on an issue at the heart of technology communities – namely, to what extent is the creator responsible for the evolution of their creation? Tech companies are reluctant to be held accountable for the masses of content uploaded to their platforms every minute and emphasised in a letter to legislators that any remedy must be “technically possible” to implement.

Concerns have also been raised about the human rights impact of tech regulation, particularly on freedom of expression. The inception of the internet and the world’s largest tech companies is steeped in the liberal culture of West Coast America. Few people want to see the UK head towards an excessively closeted regime such as that in China. Hence, the White Paper does make clear that the regulator ought to be “particularly mindful to not infringe privacy and freedom of expression”.

Compared to Javid’s unrelenting critique, Prime Minister Theresa May’s comment in the Metro acknowledged that law in the UK had not kept pace with the rapid pace of technological change, but regulations sought to build trust in new technologies, not punish innovation. Her statement reflected the White Papers emphasis on developing a culture of transparency, trust and accountability.

Accordingly, tech companies could use the White Paper to begin meaningful engagement with the Government in order to avoid an overly harsh regulatory scheme. It could be seen as an opportunity for genuine collaboration that can protect users and enhance public trust, whilst preserving the core freedoms of communication that the internet was built for.

User-focused

Whilst technology companies ought to take responsibility to tackle the worst forms on online harms, there is also scope for the user to do more to protect themselves online.

Hence, the White Paper has also sought to engage with the cause of online harms and commits to a new online media literacy strategy alongside key stakeholders to empower users to protect themselves when using the internet. The Government has already made moves in this area to make users savvier online with a multi-million-pound public awareness campaign into identifying disinformation. The literacy strategy is an important move that represents the Government’s commitment to treating users as agents of change in the age of technology.

This White Paper is by no means the last word on regualting the internet. Accordingly, it provides an opportunity for both creators and users to influence the future regualtory environment in as impactful a way as they have shaped the internet over the past two decades.

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