The Government published its Online Harms White Paper on 8 April 2019. The consultation, which is open until 1 July 2019, sets out proposals to reduce illegal and harmful online activity. The harms in scope include:
- harassment and cyberbullying;
- hate crime and incitement of violence;
- terrorism, extremist and violent content;
- revenge/extreme porn, child sexual exploitation and “sexting” by under-18s;
- organised immigration crime and modern slavery;
- encouraging or assisting suicide, self-harm and FGM;
- coercive behaviour and intimidation;
- sale of illegal goods (weapons, illegal drugs etc) and illegal uploading of content from prisons;
- disinformation (fake news); and
- underage exposure to pornography (this is separately being tackled by the heavily delayed age check scheme, now due to come into force on 15 July 2019).
The white paper comes in the wake of increasing criticism of tech companies – and social media platforms in particular – for failing to adequately tackle harmful content and fake news from proliferating online. This culminated in the New Zealand terrorist shooting incident which was live streamed and subsequently uploaded to multiple platforms.
Although the internet is already regulated to a certain degree, there is a distinction between publishers (eg media organisation) and platforms (eg Facebook) in terms of responsibility for content. One of the key aims of this white paper seems to be to make social media organisations and tech companies in general accountable for what appears on their platforms. It proposes a new regulatory framework for online safety, overseen by an independent regulatory body which “will have a range of enforcement powers, including the power to levy substantial fines”. Introducing the white paper, Jeremy Wright, the UK’s digital secretary said that “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over … Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough.” Interestingly, less than two weeks since the white paper was announced, Facebook decided to impose a ban on several far right groups and individuals.
In his submission of May 2018 to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications in relation to the inquiry into regulation of the Internet, Dr Paul Bernal, Senior Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the UEA Law School, pointed out that “the internet is already regulated by a wide range of laws, from those governing speech (such as s 127 of the Communications Act 2003, the Malicious Communication Act 1988) and public order law to data protection, copyright and fraud, as well as civil law such as defamation law, misuse of private information and much more” – and he warned that further regulation “could very well be counterproductive, have serious side effects and have an impact on privacy, freedom of expression and a wide range of other human rights whilst failing to deal with the real problems.”