The UK Government’s long-awaited White Paper on Online Harms finally appeared today. It has been warmly welcomed by children’s, parents’ and other civil society organizations. That’s because it is a first-rate document, signalling the beginning of a new approach to internet governance in the UK. However, everyone knows what is happening here has a contemporary echo in practically every liberal democracy in the world. There is a reason for that.
Here are my headlines:
Who is in scope?
The companies that are “in scope” are those which “allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online.” I guess that’s another way of saying “social media” but potentially it could go wider than companies conventionally thought of as being social media sites and services.
A statutory duty of care
The centrepiece of the White Paper is the declared intention to establish a new statutory duty of care to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harms caused by content or activity on their services.
Compliance to be enforced by an independent regulator
A new, statutory regulator will be established. In codes of practice it will set out what is expected of qualifying companies. If companies want to fulfil a stated duty in a manner not set out in a code, they will have to explain and justify to the regulator how their alternative approach will effectively deliver the same or greater level of impact.
A company’s terms and conditions acquire a new importance
Businesses’ terms and conditions of service will have to be clear and accessible, including to children and other vulnerable users. This is already a GDPR requirement that is likely to be spelled out more fully in the code of practice on age appropriate design which the UK’s privacy body (the ICO) will soon (?) publish.
More generally, the new regulator will assess how effectively a company’s terms and conditions are being enforced. To inform its reports and to guide its regulatory action, the regulator will have the power to require annual reports from companies.
Reasonable and proportionate
This proportionate approach will also be enshrined in the legislation which will make clear that companies are required to take reasonable and proportionate action to tackle harms on their services (my emphasis).
The regulator will set clear expectations of what companies should do to tackle illegal activity and to keep children safe online.
There is no intention to abandon the principle of platform immunity but
“the new regulatory framework (will take) a more thorough approach (by increasing) the responsibility that services have in relation to online harms”
I expect this will lead to a greater level of deployment of PhotoDNA and algorithms which can detect paedophilic and other harmful behaviours such as bullying.
Not before time.
Naming, shaming and transparency
The regulator will have considerable power to require companies to provide it with information. Transparency is going to be a key part of the new regime. Companies that are not up to snuff will be publicly identified.
Fines, blocking and criminal responsibility
The regulator is going to have a range of tools to underpin and support the policy including an ability to levy substantial fines, potentially even to require sites or services to be blocked. Making senior executives criminally liable for failures is also on the cards.
White tinged with green
It is being said the White Paper is heavily tinged with green. This means there are a lot of extremely important details to be worked out. Two of the most important are the identity and powers of the regulator and how it is to be funded.
A lot to play for
There is a formal consultation period of three months but there can be little doubt that these matters will concerns us far beyond that. Legislation will be required. Brexit apart, that is rarely something that can be hurried.
Another brave experiment but it has widespread support
Of course there will be arguments over important details but all of the major political parties are broadly aligned in relation to the key points in the White Paper and that is because public opinion is solidly behind these kinds of measures. There will be the ideologues who still think Governments and Parliaments should stay away from matters of this kind but when even Mark Zuckerberg is calling for statutory regulation I doubt such extremists will get any serious traction.
The doors of the Last Chance Saloon have been nailed up and sealed.