The Online Safety White Paper – What Can We Expect?

By February 8, 2019 UK

Deputy Labour Leader and Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson MP took to the stage at Whitechapel Art Gallery, following Safer Internet Day, to outline Labour’s intention to introduce a ‘statutory regulator of the digital market’ that will have the power to impose harsh fines on companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other smaller platforms. The announcement hardly seems unexpected at a time when daily headlines warn of the dangers of social media, its impact on children and the supposedly careless nature of online platforms in safeguarding users from abuse, hate speech and terrorist content.

Indeed, Government have also alluded to plans to ‘crack down’ on online platforms in the past weeks, ahead of the publication of the Online Safety White Paper, with Home Secretary, Sajid Javid MP, Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright MP, and Health Secretary, Matt Hancock MP, united in their stance to push online platforms to do more to protect users. Given Watson’s recent announcement, it appears that the desire to enforce greater regulation in this area is one of the few areas of policy where there is a great deal of cross-party consensus.

The Government’s ability to legislate effectively however, is far more complex. Legislation will require careful thought around what content can and should be regulated and who will hold the responsibility of acting as a regulator. Whilst illegal forms of content, such as child sexual abuse images, have clear legal definitions, ‘harmful’ content can often be more difficult to identify and remove. Furthermore, despite the large amounts of money invested in developing new tools to identify such content online, new changes in technology, such as livestreaming, make the process of identifying and removing content a constant challenge for industry, charities and law enforcement. There is also little clarity, from either the Conservatives or Labour, on what form a regulator will take. Recent reports have suggested that existing bodies, such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) or Ofcom may take on these responsibilities, but questions have been raised around whether any existing body has the scope or resources to take on such a vast remit.

Questions have also been raised around the impact that further legislation on social media companies can have more widely to free speech and the digital economy. German legislation introduced in the last year has seen social media firms being required by law to remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours of the content being flagged or risk up to €50million in fines. The model has been cited by many, including Watson himself, as a positive example, with the Commons Science & Technology Committee recently suggesting a similar system be introduced in the UK. The legislation, however, has also faced criticism for leaving tech firms and moderators, who may lack the high level of legal expertise required, to hurriedly distinguish between free speech and hate speech to avoid steep fines.  Moreover, rather than the ‘Wild West’ as is often characterised, there are existing rules, initiatives and practices that govern what users can say and do online.

In 2017, the Government announced an Internet Safety Strategy Green paper, a consultation that covered various aspects on online safety. The consultation responses reinforced the Government’s views that a code of practice, as well as some form of transparency reporting should be brought forward, and Government pledged to publish a full White Paper by the end of 2018, outlining their plans. With Government Ministers publicly stating that voluntary action by industry has been insufficient, additional regulations, such as a statutory duty of care and a code of conduct, are likely to be introduced. What remains to be seen, however, is how strictly such policies will be policed and whether industry will be subject to penalties if they fail to comply. Strong sanctions would likely have the benefit of boosting compliance but could also risk impairing the UK’s digital economy going forward if equivalent measures are not introduced at an international level.