HomeInsightsDepartment for Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office publish Online Harms White Paper

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The Government says that these are the first online safety laws of their kind.  Under the proposals, social media companies and tech firms will be legally required to protect their users and will face tough penalties if they do not comply.  A new independent regulator will also be introduced to ensure companies meet their responsibilities.

These will include a mandatory duty of care, which will require companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and to tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services.  The regulator will have effective enforcement tools, and the Government is consulting on powers to issue substantial fines, block access to sites and potentially to impose liability on individual members of senior management.

A range of harms will be tackled under the proposals, including inciting violence and violent content, and encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyber bullying and children accessing inappropriate material.

There will be stringent requirements for companies to take even tougher action to ensure they tackle terrorist and child sexual exploitation and abuse content.

The new proposed laws will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online.  This means a wide range of companies of all sizes are in scope, including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services, and search engines.

As for the regulator, the Government is now consulting on whether the regulator should be a new or existing body.  The regulator will be funded by industry in the medium term, and the Government is exploring options such as an industry levy to put it on a sustainable footing.

The new measures include:

  • a new statutory “duty of care” to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services;
  • further stringent requirements on tech companies to ensure child abuse and terrorist content is not disseminated online;
  • giving a regulator the power to force social media platforms and others to publish annual transparency reports on the amount of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to address this;
  • making companies respond to users’ complaints, and act to address them quickly;
  • codes of practice, issued by the regulator, which could include measures such as requirements to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation with dedicated fact checkers, particularly during election periods;
  • a new “Safety by Design” framework to help companies incorporate online safety features in new apps and platforms from the start;
  • a media literacy strategy to equip people with the knowledge to recognise and deal with a range of deceptive and malicious behaviours online, including catfishing, grooming and extremism.

The Government says that it remains committed to a free, open and secure internet.  The regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to innovation, and to protect users’ rights online, being particularly mindful not to infringe privacy and freedom of expression.

A 12-week consultation on the proposals has also been launched.  Once this concludes the Government will then set out the action it will take in developing its final proposals for legislation.

The consultation aims to gather views on various aspects of the government’s plans for regulation and tackling online harms, including:

  • the online services in scope of the regulatory framework;
  • options for appointing an independent regulatory body to implement, oversee and enforce the new regulatory framework;
  • the enforcement powers of an independent regulatory body;
  • potential redress mechanisms for online users; and
  • measures to ensure regulation is targeted and proportionate for industry.

The consultation closes on 1 July 2019.

The Government also says that recognising that the internet can be a tremendous force for good, and that technology will be an integral part of any solution, the new plans have been designed to “promote a culture of continuous improvement among companies”.  The new regime will ensure that online firms are “incentivised to develop and share new technological solutions”, rather than just complying with minimum requirements. The Government says it has “balanced the clear need for tough regulation with its ambition for the UK to be the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business, and the new regulatory framework will provide strong protection for our citizens while driving innovation by not placing an impossible burden on smaller companies”.  To read the press release in full and for a link to the White Paper and the consultation, click here.