The U.K. government is rushing to finalize a draft internet censorship law particularly targeting social media but key details of the proposal have yet to be finalised amid concerns about stifling innovation.
Government officials have been meeting
with industry players, MPs, peers and other groups over the past month as they try to finalise their proposals.
People involved in those discussions said there is now broad agreement about the need to impose a new duty of care on big tech
companies, as well as the need to back up their terms and conditions with the force of law.
A white paper is due be published by the end of winter. But the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is partly responsible for writing
up the new rules alongside the Home Office, is still deliberating over key aspects with just weeks to go until the government said it would unveil an outline of its proposals.
Among the sticking points are worries that regulation could stifle
innovation in one of the U.K. economy's most thriving sectors and concerns over whether it can keep pace with rapid technological change. Another is ensuring sufficient political support to pass the law despite likely opposition from parts of the
Conservative Party. A third is deciding what regulatory agency would ultimately be responsible for enforcing the so-called Internet Safety Law.
A major unresolved question is what censorship body will be in charge of enforcing laws that could
expose big tech companies to greater liability for hosted content, a prospect that firms including Google and Facebook have fought at the European level.
Several people who spoke to POLITICO said the government does not appear to have settled on
who would be the censor, although the communications regulator Ofcom is very much in the mix, however there are concerns that Ofcom is already getting too big.
Wrangling in Whitehall has held up plans to set up a social media censor dubbed Ofweb, The Mail on Sunday reveals.
The Government was due to publish a White Paper this winter on censorship of tech giants but this Mail has learnt it is still far from
ready. Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said it would be published within a month, but a Cabinet source said that timeline was wholly unrealistic. Other senior Government sources went further and said the policy document is unlikely to surface before the
Key details on how a new censor would work have yet to be decided while funding from the Treasury has not yet been secured. Another problem is that some Ministers believe the proposed clampdown is too draconian and are preparing to try to
block or water down the plan.
There are also concerns that technically difficult requirements would benefit the largest US companies as smaller European companies and start ups would not be able to afford the technology and development required.
The Mail on Sunday understands Jeremy Wright has postponed a visit to Facebook HQ in California to discuss the measures, as key details are still up in the air.
Update: The Conservatives don't have a monopoly on internet censorship...Labour agrees
Labour has called for a new entity capable of taking on the likes of Facebook and Google. Tom Watson, the shadow digital secretary, will on Wednesday say a regulator should also have responsibility for competition policy and be able to refer cases
to the Competition and Markets Authority.
According to Watson, any duty of care would only be effective with penalties that seriously affect companies' bottom lines. He has referred to regulators' ability to fine companies up to 4% of global
turnover, or euro 20m, whichever is higher, for worst-case breaches of the EU-wide General Data Protection Regulation.
There is every reason to believe that the government and opposition are moving to a consensus on introducing a duty of care for social media companies to reduce harm and risk to their users. This may be backed by an Internet regulator, who might
decide what kind of mitigating actions are appropriate to address the risks to users on different platforms.
This idea originated from a series of papers by Will Perrin and Lorna Woods and has been mentioned most recently in a
recent Science and Technology committee report and by NGOs including children's charity 5Rights.
A duty of care has some obvious merits: it could be based on objective risks, based on evidence, and ensure that mitigations are
proportionate to those risks. It could take some of the politicisation out of the current debate.
However, it also has obvious problems. For a start, it focuses on risk rather than process . It moves attention away from the fact
that interventions are regulating social media users just as much as platforms. It does not by itself tell us that free expression impacts will be considered, tracked or mitigated.
Furthermore, the lack of focus that a duty of
care model gives to process means that platform decisions that have nothing to do with risky content are not necessarily based on better decisions, independent appeals and so on. Rather, as has happened with German regulation, processes can remain
unaffected when they are outside a duty of care.
In practice, a lot of content which is disturbing or offensive is already banned on online platforms. Much of this would not be in scope under a duty of care but it is precisely
these kinds of material which users often complain about, when it is either not removed when they want it gone, or is removed incorrectly. Any model of social media regulation needs to improve these issues, but a duty of care is unlikely to touch these
There are very many questions about the kinds of risk, whether to individual in general, vulnerable groups, or society at large; and the evidence required to create action. The truth is that a duty of care, if cast
sensibly and narrowly, will not satisfy many of the people who are demanding action; equally, if the threshold to act is low, then it will quickly be seen to be a mechanism for wide-scale Internet censorship.
It is also a simple
fact that many decisions that platforms make about legal content which is not risky are not the business of government to regulate. This includes decisions about what legal content is promoted and why. For this reason, we believe that a better approach
might be to require independent self-regulation of major platforms across all of their content decisions. This requirement could be a legislative one, but the regulator would need to be independent of government and platforms.
Independent self-regulation has not been truly tried. Instead, voluntary agreements have filled its place. We should be cautious about moving straight to government regulation of social media and social media users. The government refuses to regulate the press in this way because it doesn't wish to be seen to be controlling print media. It is pretty curious that neither the media nor the government are spelling out the risks of state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens.
That we are in this place is of course largely the fault of the social media platforms themselves, who have failed to understand the need and value of transparent and accountable systems to ensure they are acting properly. That,
however, just demonstrates the problem: politically weak platforms who have created monopoly positions based on data silos are now being sliced and diced at the policy table for their wider errors. It's imperative that as these government proposals
progress we keep focus on the simple fact that it is end users whose speech will ultimately be regulated.
Social media companies face criminal sanctions for failing to protect children from online harms, according to drafts of the Government's White Paper circulating in Whitehall.
Civil servants are proposing a new corporate offence as an option in
the White Paper plans for a tough new censor with the power to force social media firms to take down illegal content and to police legal but harmful material.
They see criminal sanctions as desirable and as an important part of a regulatory
regime, said one source who added that there's a recognition particularly on the Home Office side that this needs to be a regulator with teeth. The main issue they need to satisfy ministers on is extra-territoriality, that is can you apply this to non-UK
companies like Facebook and YouTube? The belief is that you can.
The White Paper, which is due to published mid-March followed by a Summer consultation, is not expected to lay out as definitive a plan as previously thought. A decision on whether
to create a brand new censor or use Ofcom is expected to be left open. A Whitehall source said:
Criminal sanctions are going to be put into the White Paper as an option. We are not necessarily saying we are going to do
it but these are things that are open to us. They will be allied to a system of fines amounting to 4% of global turnover or Euros 20m, whichever is higher.
Government minister Jeremy Wright told the Telegraph this week he was
especially focused on ensuring that technology companies enforce minimum age standards. He also indicated the Government w ould fulfill a manifesto commitment to a levy on social media firms, that could fund the new censorr.
The world's biggest internet companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter are represented by a trade group call The Internet Association. This organisation has written to UK government ministers to outline how they believe harmful online activity
should be regulated.
The letter has been sent to the culture, health and home secretaries. The letter will be seen as a pre-emptive move in the coming negotiation over new rules to govern the internet. The government is due to publish a delayed White
Paper on online harms in the coming weeks.
The letter outlines six principles:
"Be targeted at specific harms, using a risk-based approach
"Provide flexibility to adapt to changing technologies, different services and evolving societal expectations
"Maintain the intermediary liability
protections that enable the internet to deliver significant benefits for consumers, society and the economy
"Be technically possible to implement in practice
"Provide clarity and certainty for consumers, citizens and internet
"Recognise the distinction between public and private communication"
Many leading figures in the UK technology sector fear a lack of expertise in government, and hardening public sentiment against the excesses of the internet, will push the Online Harms paper in a more radical direction.
Three of the key areas
of debate are the definition of online harm, the lack of liability for third-party content, and the difference between public and private communication.
The companies insist that government should recognise the distinction between clearly illegal
content and content which is harmful, but not illegal. If these leading tech companies believe this government definition of harm is too broad, their insistence on a distinction between illegal and harmful content may be superseded by another set of
The companies also defend the principle that platforms such as YouTube permit users to post and share information without fear that those platforms will be held liable for third-party content. Another area which will be of particular
interest to the Home Office is the insistence that care should be taken to avoid regulation encroaching into the surveillance of private communications.
In the first online safety laws of their kind, social media companies and tech firms will be legally required to protect their users and face tough penalties if they do not comply.
part of the Online Harms White Paper, a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office, a new independent regulator will be introduced to ensure companies meet their responsibilities.
will include a mandatory 'duty of care', which will require companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services. The regulator will have effective enforcement tools, and we are 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 as part of the
Online Harms White Paper , including inciting violence and violent content, 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.
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.
A regulator will be appointed to enforce the new framework. 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.
12 week consultation on the proposals has also been launched today. Once this concludes we will then set out the action we will take in
developing our final proposals for legislation.
Tough new measures set out in the White Paper 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 UK 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 to not infringe privacy and freedom of
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, like Google's "Family Link" and Apple's Screen Time app, rather than just complying with minimum requirements. Government
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.
Critics of the government's flagship internet regulation policy are warning it could lead to a North Korean-style censorship regime, where regulators decide which websites Britons are allowed to visit, because of how broad
the proposals are.
Index on Censorship has raised strong concerns about the government's focus on tackling unlawful and harmful online content, particularly since the publication of the Internet Safety Strategy
Green Paper in 2017. In October 2018, Index published a joint statement with Global Partners Digital and Open Rights Group noting that any proposals that regulate content are likely to have a significant impact on the enjoyment and exercise of human
rights online, particularly freedom of expression.
We have also met with officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as from the Home Office, to raise our thoughts and concerns.
With the publication of the Online Harms White Paper , we would like to reiterate our earlier points.
While we recognise the government's desire to tackle unlawful content online, the proposals mooted in the
white paper -- including a new duty of care on social media platforms , a regulatory body , and even the fining and banning of social media platforms as a sanction -- pose serious risks to freedom of expression online.
could put the United Kingdom in breach of its obligations to respect and promote the right to freedom of expression and information as set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European
Convention on Human Rights, amongst other international treaties.
Social media platforms are a key means for tens of millions of individuals in the United Kingdom to search for, receive, share and impart information, ideas and
opinions. The scope of the right to freedom of expression includes speech which may be offensive, shocking or disturbing . The proposed responses for tackling online safety may lead to disproportionate amounts of legal speech being curtailed, undermining
the right to freedom of expression.
In particular, we raise the following concerns related to the white paper:
Lack of evidence base
The wide range of different harms which the government is seeking to tackle in this policy process require different, tailored responses. Measures proposed must be underpinned by strong evidence, both of the likely scale of the harm
and the measures' likely effectiveness. The evidence which formed the base of the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper was highly variable in its quality. Any legislative or regulatory measures should be supported by clear and unambiguous evidence of
their need and effectiveness.
Duty of care concerns/ problems with 'harm' definition
Index is concerned at the use of a duty of care regulatory approach. Although social media has often been compared the public square, the duty of care model is not an exact fit because this would introduce regulation -- and
restriction -- of speech between individuals based on criteria that is far broader than current law. A failure to accurately define "harmful" content risks incorporating legal speech, including political expression, expressions of religious
views, expressions of sexuality and gender, and expression advocating on behalf of minority groups.
Risks in linking liability/sanctions to platforms over third party content
While well-meaning, proposals such as these contain serious risks, such as requiring or incentivising wide-sweeping removal of lawful and innocuous content. The imposition of time limits for removal, heavy sanctions for non-compliance
or incentives to use automated content moderation processes only heighten this risk, as has been evidenced by the approach taken in Germany via its Network Enforcement Act (or NetzDG), where there is evidence of the over-removal of lawful content.
Lack of sufficient protections for freedom of expression.
The obligation to protect users' rights online that is included in the white paper gives insufficient weight to freedom of expression. A much clearer obligation to protect freedom of expression should guide development of future
In recognition of the UK's commitment to the multistakeholder model of internet governance, we hope all relevant stakeholders, including civil society experts on digital rights and freedom of expression, will be fully
engaged throughout the development of the Online Harms bill.
PI welcomes the UK government's commitment to investigating and holding companies to account. When it comes to regulating the internet, however, we must move with care. Failure to do so
will introduce, rather than reduce, "online harms". A 12-week consultation on the proposals has also been launched today. PI plans to file a submission to the consultation as it relates to our work. Given the breadth of the proposals, PI calls
on others respond to the consultation as well.
Here are our initial suggestions:
proceed with care: proposals of regulation of content on digital media platforms should be very carefully evaluated, given the high risks of negative impacts on expression, privacy and other human rights. This is a very complex
challenge and we support the need for broad consultation before any legislation is put forward in this area.
do not lose sight of how data exploitation facilitates the harms identified in the report and ensure any new regulator works closely with others working to tackle these issues.
assess carefully the delegation of sole responsibility to companies as adjudicators of content. This would empower corporate judgment over content, with would have implications for human rights, particularly freedom of expression
require that judicial or other independent authorities, rather than government agencies, are the final arbiters of decisions regarding what is posted online and enforce such decisions in a manner that is consistent with human
assess the privacy implications of any demand for "proactive" monitoring of content in digital media platforms.
ensure that any requirement or expectation of deploying automated decision making/AI is in full compliance with existing human rights and data protection standards (which, for example, prohibit, with limited exceptions, relying on
solely automated decisions, including profiling, when they significantly affect individuals).
ensure that company transparency reports include information related to how the content was targeted at users.
require companies to provide efficient reporting tools in multiple languages, to report on action taken with regard to content posted online. Reporting tools should be accessible, user-friendly, and easy to find. There should be
full transparency regarding the complaint and redress mechanisms available and opportunities for civil society to take action.
UK Now Proposes Ridiculous Plan To Fine Internet Companies For Vaguely Defined Harmful Content
Last week Australia rushed through a ridiculous bill to fine internet companies if they happen to host any abhorrent content. It
appears the UK took one look at that nonsense and decided it wanted some too. On Monday it released a white paper calling for massive fines for internet companies for allowing any sort of online harms. To call the plan nonsense is being way too harsh to
The plan would result in massive, widespread, totally unnecessary censorship solely for the sake of pretending to do something about the fact that some people sometimes do not so nice things online. And it will place all
of the blame on the internet companies for the (vaguely defined) not so nice things that those companies' users might do online.
We agree with your characterisation of the online harms white paper as a flawed attempt to deal with serious problems (Regulating the internet demands clear thought about hard problems, Editorial, 9 April). However, we would draw your attention to
several fundamental problems with the proposal which could be disastrous if it proceeds in its current form.
Firstly, the white paper proposes to regulate literally the entire internet, and censor anything non-compliant. This
extends to blogs, file services, hosting platforms, cloud computing; nothing is out of scope.
Secondly, there are a number of undefined harms with no sense of scope or evidence thresholds to establish a need for action. The lawful
speech of millions of people would be monitored, regulated and censored.
The result is an approach that would make China's state censors proud. It would be very likely to face legal challenge. It would give the UK the widest and
most prolific internet censorship in an apparently functional democracy. A fundamental rethink is needed.
Antonia Byatt Director, English PEN, Silkie Carlo Big Brother Watch Thomas Hughes Executive director, Article 19 Jim Killock
Executive director, Open Rights Group Joy Hyvarinen Head of advocacy, Index on Censorship
Comment: The DCMS Online Harms Strategy must design in fundamental rights
Increasingly over the past year, DCMS has become fixated on the idea of imposing a duty of care on social media platforms, seeing this as a flexible and de-politicised way to emphasise the dangers of exposing children and young people to certain
online content and make Facebook in particular liable for the uglier and darker side of its user-generated material.
DCMS talks a lot about the 'harm' that social media causes. But its proposals fail to explain how harm to free
expression impacts would be avoided.
On the positive side, the paper lists free expression online as a core value to be protected and addressed by the regulator. However, despite the apparent prominence of this value, the
mechanisms to deliver this protection and the issues at play are not explored in any detail at all.
In many cases, online platforms already act as though they have a duty of care towards their users. Though the efficacy of such
measures in practice is open to debate, terms and conditions, active moderation of posts and algorithmic choices about what content is pushed or downgraded are all geared towards ousting illegal activity and creating open and welcoming shared spaces.
DCMS hasn't in the White Paper elaborated on what its proposed duty would entail. If it's drawn narrowly so that it only bites when there is clear evidence of real, tangible harm and a reason to intervene, nothing much will change. However, if it's drawn
widely, sweeping up too much content, it will start to act as a justification for widespread internet censorship.
If platforms are required to prevent potentially harmful content from being posted, this incentivises widespread
prior restraint. Platforms can't always know in advance the real-world harm that online content might cause, nor can they accurately predict what people will say or do when on their platform. The only way to avoid liability is to impose wide-sweeping
upload filters. Scaled implementation of this relies on automated decision-making and algorithms, which risks even greater speech restrictions given that machines are incapable of making nuanced distinctions or recognising parody or sarcasm.
DCMS's policy is underpinned by societally-positive intentions, but in its drive to make the internet "safe", the government seems not to recognise that ultimately its proposals don't regulate social media companies, they
regulate social media users. The duty of care is ostensibly aimed at shielding children from danger and harm but it will in practice bite on adults too, wrapping society in cotton wool and curtailing a whole host of legal expression.
Although the scheme will have a statutory footing, its detail will depend on codes of practice drafted by the regulator. This makes it difficult to assess how the duty of care framework will ultimately play out.
The duty of care seems to be broadly about whether systemic interventions reduce overall "risk". But must the risk be always to an identifiable individual, or can it be broader - to identifiable vulnerable groups? To society
as a whole? What evidence of harm will be required before platforms should intervene? These are all questions that presently remain unanswered.
DCMS's approach appears to be that it will be up to the regulator to answer these
questions. But whilst a sensible regulator could take a minimalist view of the extent to which commercial decisions made by platforms should be interfered with, allowing government to distance itself from taking full responsibility over the fine
detailing of this proposed scheme is a dangerous principle. It takes conversations about how to police the internet out of public view and democratic forums. It enables the government to opt not to create a transparent, judicially reviewable legislative
framework. And it permits DCMS to light the touch-paper on a deeply problematic policy idea without having to wrestle with the practical reality of how that scheme will affect UK citizens' free speech, both in the immediate future and for years to come.
How the government decides to legislate and regulate in this instance will set a global norm.
The UK government is clearly keen to lead international efforts to regulate online content. It
knows that if the outcome of the duty of care is to change the way social media platforms work that will apply worldwide. But to be a global leader, DCMS needs to stop basing policy on isolated issues and anecdotes and engage with a broader conversation
around how we as society want the internet to look. Otherwise, governments both repressive and democratic are likely to use the policy and regulatory model that emerge from this process as a blueprint for more widespread internet censorship.
The House of Lords report on the future of the internet, published in early March 2019, set out ten principles
it considered should underpin digital policy-making, including the importance of protecting free expression. The consultation that this White Paper introduces offers a positive opportunity to collectively reflect, across industry, civil society, academia
and government, on how the negative aspects of social media can be addressed and risks mitigated. If the government were to use this process to emphasise its support for the fundamental right to freedom of expression - and in a way that goes beyond mere
expression of principle - this would also reverberate around the world, particularly at a time when press and journalistic freedom is under attack.
The White Paper expresses a clear desire for tech companies to "design in
safety". As the process of consultation now begins, we call on DCMS to "design in fundamental rights". Freedom of expression is itself a framework, and must not be lightly glossed over. We welcome the opportunity to engage with DCMS
further on this topic: before policy ideas become entrenched, the government should consider deeply whether these will truly achieve outcomes that are good for everyone.
The Open Rights Group comments on the government censorship plans:
Online Harms: Blocking websites doesn't work -- use a rights-based approach instead
Blocking websites isn't working. It's not
keeping children safe and it's stopping vulnerable people from accessing information they need. It's not the right approach to take on Online Harms.
This is the finding from our
recent research into website blocking by mobile and broadband
Internet providers. And yet, as part of its Internet regulation agenda, the UK Government wants to roll out even more blocking.
The Government's Online Harms White Paper is focused on making online companies fulfil a "duty
of care" to protect users from "harmful content" -- two terms that remain troublingly ill-defined. 1
The paper proposes giving a regulator various punitive measures to use against companies that fail to fulfil this duty, including powers to block websites.
If this scheme comes into effect, it could lead to
widespread automated blocking of legal content for people in the UK.
Mobile and broadband Internet providers have been blocking websites with parental control filters for five years. But through our
Blocked project -- which detects incorrect website blocking -- we know that systems are still blocking far too many sites and far too many types of sites by mistake.
Thanks to website blocking, vulnerable people and under-18s are losing access to crucial information and support from websites including counselling, charity, school, and sexual health websites. Small businesses are
losing customers. And website owners often don't know this is happening.
We've seen with parental control filters that blocking websites doesn't have the intended outcomes. It restricts access to legal, useful,
and sometimes crucial information. It also does nothing to prevent people who are determined to get access to material on blocked websites, who often use VPNs to get around the filters. Other solutions like filters applied by a parent to a child's
account on a device are more appropriate.
Unfortunately, instead of noting these problems inherent to website blocking by Internet providers and rolling back, the Government is pressing ahead with website blocking in other areas.
Blocking by Internet providers may not work for long. We are seeing a technical shift towards encrypted website address requests that will make this kind of website blocking by Internet providers much more
When I type a human-friendly web address such as openrightsgroup.org into a web browser and hit enter, my computer asks a Domain Name System (DNS) for that website's computer-friendly IP address - which will
look something like 184.108.40.206 . My web browser can then use that computer-friendly address to load the website.
At the moment, most DNS requests are unencrypted. This allows mobile and broadband Internet providers to
see which website I want to visit. If a website is on a blocklist, the system won't return the actual IP address to my computer. Instead, it will tell me that that site is blocked, or will tell my computer that the site doesn't exist. That stops me
visiting the website and makes the block effective.
Increasingly, though, DNS requests are being encrypted. This provides much greater security for ordinary Internet users. It also makes website blocking by Internet providers
incredibly difficult. Encrypted DNS is becoming widely available through Google's Android devices, on Mozilla's Firefox web browser and through Cloudflare's mobile application for Android and iOS. Other encrypted DNS services are also available.
Blocking websites may be the Government's preferred tool to deal with social problems on the Internet but it doesn't work, both in policy terms and increasingly at a technical level as well.
The Government must accept that website blocking by mobile and broadband Internet providers is not the answer. They should concentrate instead on a rights-based approach to Internet regulation and on educational and social approaches that address the roots of complex societal issues.
Offsite Article: CyberLegal response to the Online Harms Consultation
The National Secular Society has warned that government plans to require social media companies to censor hateful and offensive content could act as a de facto blasphemy law.
In its response to the government's white paper on
online harms , the NSS said efforts to confront and challenge hateful speech and behaviour must not undermine free speech on religion.
The white paper outlines plans to create a regulator with the power to fine online platforms
and block websites. The regulator will be required to create guidance for social media companies, outlining what constitutes hateful content online.
The guidance would include content which is not necessarily illegal, content
which may directly or indirectly cause harm to other users and some offensive material in that definition.
The NSS said censoring content that could be considered offensive would severely restrict freedom of expression, including
the freedom to criticise or satirise religion. The society added that the question of offence was an entirely subjective matter.
The NSS also noted that a requirement on companies to demonstrate 'continuous improvement' in
tackling hateful material could encourage them to be more censorious.
The NSS also challenged a claim in the white paper that offending online is just as serious as that occurring offline. The NSS said this line lowered the
threshold for hate crimes, because people's ability to commit such crimes is much more limited online than offline.
The society raised the example of a man who was recently arrested on suspicion of hate crime after publishing a
video on Facebook of himself mocking Islamic prayer in a hospital prayer room. The NSS noted that threats of death and violence were made towards the man and were reported to the police, but no action appeared to have been taken against the perpetrators
The NSS also criticised the government's definition of hate crime which is contained within the white paper. The definition says hate crimes include crimes demonstrating hostility on the grounds of an individual's actual
or perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity.
The NSS said this definition was too broad, meaning any incident in which an individual demonstrates hostility toward another individual based on
the listed characteristics could be treated as a hate crime.
The society said strong critics of religion or Christians who preach that gay people will go to Hell were examples of those who risk being charged with hate crimes.
NSS spokesperson Megan Manson said the white paper had given too much ground to those who attempt to shut down legitimate expression, including on religion.
The government should treat the fundamental right to
free expression as a positive value in its attempts to promote social cohesion. Instead it has proposed cracking down on what people can say on social media, based largely on vague and broad definitions of what constitutes 'hateful' material. In the
process it risks significantly undermining free expression for all and stirring social resentment.
Ministers must not treat the civil liberties of British citizens as an afterthought in their efforts to tackle online harms.
MPs and activists have urged the government to protect women through censorship. They write in a letter
Women around the world are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men. In Europe, 9 million girls have experienced
some kind of online violence by the time they are 15 years old. In the UK, 21% of women have received threats of physical or sexual violence online. The basis of this abuse is often, though not exclusively, misogyny.
online fuels misogyny offline. Abusive comments online can lead to violent behaviour in real life. Nearly a third of respondents to a Women's Aid survey said where threats had been made online from a partner or ex-partner, they were carried out. Along
with physical abuse, misogyny online has a psychological impact. Half of girls aged 11-21 feel less able to share their views due to fear of online abuse, according to Girlguiding UK .
The government wants to make Britain the
safest place in the world to be online, yet in the online harms white paper, abuse towards women online is categorised as harassment, with no clear consequences, whereas similar abuse on the grounds of race, religion or sexuality would trigger legal
If we are to eradicate online harms, far greater emphasis in the government's efforts should be directed to the protection and empowerment of the internet's single largest victim group: women. That is why we back the
campaign group Empower's calls for the forthcoming codes of practice to include and address the issue of misogyny by name, in the same way as they would address the issue of racism by name. Violence against women and girls online is not harassment.
Violence against women and girls online is violence.
Ali Harris Chief executive, Equally Ours Angela Smith MP Independent Anne Novis Activist Lorely Burt Liberal Democrat, House of Lords Ruth Lister Labour, House of Lords Barry Sheerman MP Labour Caroline Lucas MP Green Daniel Zeichner MP Labour Darren Jones MP Labour Diana Johnson MP Labour Flo Clucas Chair,
Liberal Democrat Women Gay Collins Ambassador, 30% Club Hannah Swirsky Campaigns officer, René Cassin Joan Ryan MP Independent Group for Change Joe Levenson Director of communications and campaigns, Young
Women's Trust Jonathan Harris House of Lords, Labour Luciana Berger MP Liberal Democrats Mandu Reid Leader, Women's Equality Party Maya Fryer WebRoots Democracy Preet Gill MP Labour Sarah Mann
Director, Friends, Families and Travellers Siobhan Freegard Founder, Channel Mum Jacqui Smith Empower
The April 2019 Online Harms White Paper set out the Government's plan for world-leading legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
The proposals, as set out in the White Paper were:
A new duty of care on companies towards their users, with an independent regulator to oversee this framework.
We want to keep people safe online, but we want to do this in a proportionate way, ensuring
that freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online, and businesses do not face undue burdens.
We are seeking to do this by ensuring that companies have the right processes and systems in place to fulfil their
obligations, rather than penalising them for individual instances of unacceptable content.
Our public consultation on this has closed and we are analysing the responses and considering the issues raised. We are working
closely with a variety of stakeholders, including technology companies and civil society groups, to understand their views.
We are seeking to do this by ensuring that companies have the right processes and systems in place to fulfil their obligations, rather than penalising them for individual instances of unacceptable content.
public consultation on this has closed and we are analysing the responses and considering the issues raised. We are working closely with a variety of stakeholders, including technology companies and civil society groups, to understand their views.
We will publish draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Ahead of this legislation, the Government will publish work on tackling the use of the internet by terrorists and those engaged in child
sexual abuse and exploitation, to ensure companies take action now to tackle content that threatens our national security and the physical safety of children.
We are also taking forward additional measures, including a media
literacy strategy, to empower users to stay safe online. A Safety by Design framework will help start-ups and small businesses to embed safety during the development or update of their products and services.
The Government has reiterated its plans as outlined in the Online Harms white paper. It seems that the measures have been advanced somewhat as previous references to pre-legislative scrutiny have been deleted.
The Queens Speech briefing paper details
the government's legislative plan for the next two years:
“My ministers will develop legislation to improve internet safety for all.”
Britain is leading the world in developing a comprehensive regulatory regime to keep people safe online, protect children and other vulnerable users and ensure that there are no safe spaces for terrorists online.
The April 2019 Online Harms White Paper set out the Government’s plan for world-leading legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. The Government will continue work to develop this legislation, alongside
ensuring that the UK remains one of the best places in the world for technology companies to operate.
The proposals, as set out in the White Paper were:
○ A new duty of care on companies towards
their users, with an independent regulator to oversee this framework. ○ The Government want to keep people safe online, but we want to do this in a proportionate way, ensuring that freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online, and that
the value of a free and ndependent press is preserved. ○ The Government is seeking to do this by ensuring that companies have the right processes and systems in place to fulfil their obligations, rather than penalising them for individual
instances of unacceptable content.
The public consultation on this has closed and the Government is analysing the responses and considering the issues raised. The Government is working closely with a variety of
stakeholders, including technology companies and civil society groups, to understand their views.
The Government will prepare legislation to implement the final policy in response to the consultation.
Ahead of this legislation, the Government will publish interim codes of practice on tackling the use of the internet by terrorists and those engaged in child sexual abuse and exploitation. This will ensure companies take action
now to tackle content that threatens our national security and the physical safety of children.
The Government will publish a media literacy strategy to empower users to stay safe online.
Government will help start-ups and businesses to embed safety from the earliest stages of developing or updating their products and services, by publishing a Safety by Design framework.
The Government will carry out a review
of the Gambling Act, with a particular focus on tackling issues around online loot boxes and credit card misuse.
What the Government has done so far:
The joint DCMS-Home Office Online Harms White Paper was published in April 2019. The Government also published the Social Media Code of Practice, setting out the actions that social media platforms should take to prevent bullying,
insulting, intimidating and humiliating behaviours on their sites.
In November 2018 the Government established a new UK Council for Internet Safety. This expanded the scope of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, and was
guided by the Government's Internet Safety Strategy.
The UK has been championing international action on online safety. The Prime Minister used his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to champion the UK's work on
The Government's Online Harms bill will require foreign social media companies to appoint a token fall guy in Britain who will be jailed should the company fail in its duty of care. I wonder what the salary will be?
The government is pushing forward with an internet censorship bill which will punish people and companies for getting it wrong without the expense and trouble of tying to dictate rules on what is allowed.
In an interesting development the Times is
reporting that the government want to introduce a "senior management liability", under which executives could be held personally responsible for breaches of standards. US tech giants would be required to appoint a British-based director, who
would be accountable for any breaches of the censorship rules.
It seems a little unjust to prosecute a token fall guy who is likely to have absolutely no say in the day to day decisions made by a foreign company. Still it should be a very well
paid job which hopefully includes lots of coverage for legal bills and a zero notice period allowing instant resignation at the first hint of trouble.
The U.K. government has hinted at its thoughts on its internet censorship plans and has also be giving clues about the schedule.
A first announcement seems to be due this month. It seems that the government is planning a summer bill and implementation
within about 18 months.
The plans are set to be discussed in Cabinet on Thursday and are due to be launched to coincide with Safer Internet Day next Tuesday when Baroness Morgan will also publish results of a consultation on last year's White Paper
on online harms.
The unelected Nicky Morgan proposes the new regime should mirror regulation in the financial sector, known as senior management liability where firms have to appoint a fall guy director to take personal responsibility for ensuring
they meet their legal duties. They face fines and criminal prosecution for breaches.
Ofcom will advise on potential sanctions against the directors ranging from enforcement notices, professional disqualification, fines and criminal prosecution. Under
the plans, Ofcom will also draw up legally enforceable codes of practice setting out what the social media firms will be expected to do to protect users from loosely define online harms that may not even be illegal.
Other legal harms to be
covered by codes are expected to include disinformation that causes public harm such as anti-vaccine propaganda, self-harm, harassment, cyberbullying, violence and pornography where there will be tougher rules on age verification to bar children.
Tellingly proposals to include real and actual financial harms such as fraud in the codes have been dropped.
Ministers have yet to decide if to give the internet censor the power to block website access to UK internet users but this option seems out of favour, maybe because it results in massive numbers of people moving to the encrypted internet that makes
it harder the authorities to snoop on people's internet activity.
The Government has signalled its approach to introducing internet censorship in a government response to consultation contributions about the Online Harms white paper. A more detailed paper will follow in the spring.
The Government has outlined
onerous, vague and expensive censorship requirements on any British website that lets its users post content including speech. Any website that takes down its forums and comment sections etc will escape the nastiness of the new law.
The idea seems
to be to force all speech onto a few US and Chinese social media websites that can handle the extensive censorship requirements of the British Governments. No doubt this will give a market opportunity for the US and Chinese internet giants to start
charging for forcibly moderated and censored interaction.
The Government has more or less committed to appointing Ofcom as the state internet censor who will be able to impose massive fines on companies and their fall guy directors who allow
speech that the government doesn't like.
On a slightly more positive note the government seems to have narrowed down its censorship scope from any conceivable thing that could be considered a harm to someone somewhere into more manageable set that
can be defines as harms to children.
The introductory sections of the document read:
1. The Online Harms White Paper set out the intention to improve protections for users
online through the introduction of a new duty of care on companies and an independent regulator responsible for overseeing this framework. The White Paper proposed that this regulation follow a proportionate and risk-based approach, and that the duty of
care be designed to ensure that all companies have appropriate systems and processes in place to react to concerns over harmful content and improve the safety of their users - from effective complaint mechanisms to transparent decision-making over
actions taken in response to reports of harm.
2. The consultation ran from 8 April 2019 to 1 July 2019. It received over 2,400 responses ranging from companies in the technology industry including large tech giants and small and
medium sized enterprises, academics, think tanks, children's charities, rights groups, publishers, governmental organisations and individuals. In parallel to the consultation process, we have undertaken extensive engagement over the last 12 months with
representatives from industry, civil society and others. This engagement is reflected in the response.
3. This initial government response provides an overview of the consultation responses and wider engagement on the proposals in
the White Paper. It includes an in-depth breakdown of the responses to each of the 18 consultation questions asked in relation to the White Paper proposals, and an overview of the feedback in response to our engagement with stakeholders. This document
forms an iterative part of the policy development process. We are committed to taking a deliberative and open approach to ensure that we get the detail of this complex and novel policy right. While it does not provide a detailed update on all policy
proposals, it does give an indication of our direction of travel in a number of key areas raised as overarching concern across some responses.
4. In particular, while the risk-based and proportionate approach proposed by the White
Paper was positively received by those we consulted with, written responses and our engagement highlighted questions over a number of areas, including freedom of expression and the businesses in scope of the duty of care. Having carefully considered the
information gained during this process, we have made a number of developments to our policies. These are clarified in the 'Our Response' section below.
5. This consultation has been a critical part of the development of this
policy and we are grateful to those who took part. This feedback is being factored into the development of this policy, and we will continue to engage with users, industry and civil society as we continue to refine our policies ahead of publication of
the full policy response. We believe that an agile and proportionate approach to regulation, developed in collaboration with stakeholders, will strengthen a free and open internet by providing a framework that builds public trust, while encouraging
innovation and providing confidence to investors.
Our response Freedom of expression
1. The consultation responses indicated that some respondents were concerned that the proposals could impact
freedom of expression online. We recognise the critical importance of freedom of expression, both as a fundamental right in itself and as an essential enabler of the full range of other human rights protected by UK and international law. As a result, the
overarching principle of the regulation of online harms is to protect users' rights online, including the rights of children and freedom of expression. Safeguards for freedom of expression have been built in throughout the framework. Rather than
requiring the removal of specific pieces of legal content, regulation will focus on the wider systems and processes that platforms have in place to deal with online harms, while maintaining a proportionate and risk-based approach.
2. To ensure protections for freedom of expression, regulation will establish differentiated expectations on companies for illegal content and activity, versus conduct that is not illegal but has the potential to cause harm. Regulation will therefore not
force companies to remove specific pieces of legal content. The new regulatory framework will instead require companies, where relevant, to explicitly state what content and behaviour they deem to be acceptable on their sites and enforce this
consistently and transparently. All companies in scope will need to ensure a higher level of protection for children, and take reasonable steps to protect them from inappropriate or harmful content.
3. Services in scope of the
regulation will need to ensure that illegal content is removed expeditiously and that the risk of it appearing is minimised by effective systems. Reflecting the threat to national security and the physical safety of children, companies will be required
to take particularly robust action to tackle terrorist content and online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
4. Recognising concerns about freedom of expression, the regulator will not investigate or adjudicate on individual
complaints. Companies will be able to decide what type of legal content or behaviour is acceptable on their services, but must take reasonable steps to protect children from harm. They will need to set this out in clear and accessible terms and
conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently. The proposed approach will improve transparency for users about which content is and is not acceptable on different platforms, and will enhance users' ability to challenge removal
of content where this occurs.
5. Companies will be required to have effective and proportionate user redress mechanisms which will enable users to report harmful content and to challenge content takedown where necessary. This will
give users clearer, more effective and more accessible avenues to question content takedown, which is an important safeguard for the right to freedom of expression. These processes will need to be transparent, in line with terms and conditions, and
Ensuring clarity for businesses
6. We recognise the need for businesses to have certainty, and will ensure that guidance is provided to help businesses understand potential
risks arising from different types of service, and the actions that businesses would need to take to comply with the duty of care as a result. We will ensure that the regulator consults with relevant stakeholders to ensure the guidance is clear and
Businesses in scope
7. The legislation will only apply to companies that provide services or use functionality on their websites which facilitate the sharing of user generated content or
user interactions, for example through comments, forums or video sharing. Our assessment is that only a very small proportion of UK businesses (estimated to account to less than 5%) fit within that definition. To ensure clarity, guidance will be provided
by the regulator to help businesses understand whether or not the services they provide or functionality contained on their website would fall into the scope of the regulation.
8. Just because a business has a social media page
that does not bring it in scope of regulation. Equally, a business would not be brought in scope purely by providing referral or discount codes on its website to be shared with other potential customers on social media. It would be the social media
platform hosting the content that is in scope, not the business using its services to advertise or promote their company. To be in scope, a business would have to operate its own website with the functionality to enable sharing of user-generated content,
or user interactions. We will introduce this legislation proportionately, minimising the regulatory burden on small businesses. Most small businesses where there is a lower risk of harm occurring will not have to make disproportionately burdensome
changes to their service to be compliant with the proposed regulation.
9. Regulation must be proportionate and based on evidence of risk of harm and what can feasibly be expected of companies. We anticipate that the regulator
would assess the business impacts of any new requirements it introduces. Final policy positions on proportionality will, therefore, align with the evidence of risk of harm and impact to business. Business-to-business services have very limited
opportunities to prevent harm occurring to individuals and as such will be out of scope of regulation.
Identity of the regulator
11. We are minded to make Ofcom the new regulator, in preference to
giving this function to a new body or to another existing organisation. This preference is based on its organisational experience, robustness, and experience of delivering challenging, high-profile remits across a range of sectors. Ofcom is a
well-established and experienced regulator, recently assuming high profile roles such as regulation of the BBC. Ofcom's focus on the communications sector means it already has relationships with many of the major players in the online arena, and its
spectrum licensing duties mean that it is practised at dealing with large numbers of small businesses.
12. We judge that such a role is best served by an existing regulator with a proven track record of experience, expertise and
credibility. We think that the best fit for this role is Ofcom, both in terms of policy alignment and organisational experience - for instance, in their existing work, Ofcom already takes the risk-based approach that we expect the online harms regulator
will need to employ.
13. Effective transparency reporting will help ensure that content removal is well-founded and freedom of expression is protected. In particular, increasing
transparency around the reasons behind, and prevalence of, content removal may address concerns about some companies' existing processes for removing content. Companies' existing processes have in some cases been criticised for being opaque and hard to
14. The government is committed to ensuring that conversations about this policy are ongoing, and that stakeholders are being engaged to mitigate concerns. In order to achieve this, we have recently established a
multi-stakeholder Transparency Working Group chaired by the Minister for Digital and Broadband which includes representation from all sides of the debate, including from industry and civil society. This group will feed into the government's transparency
report, which was announced in the Online Harms White Paper and which we intend to publish in the coming months.
15. Some stakeholders expressed concerns about a potential 'one size fits all' approach to transparency, and the
material costs for companies associated with reporting. In line with the overarching principles of the regulatory framework, the reporting requirements that a company may have to comply with will also vary in proportion with the type of service that is
being provided, and the risk factors involved. To maintain a proportionate and risk-based approach, the regulator will apply minimum thresholds in determining the level of detail that an in-scope business would need to provide in its transparency
reporting, or whether it would need to produce reports at all.
Ensuring that the regulator acts proportionately
16. The consideration of freedom of expression is at the heart of our policy
development, and we will ensure that appropriate safeguards are included throughout the legislation. By taking action to address harmful online behaviours, we are confident that our approach will support more people to enjoy their right to freedom of
expression and participate in online discussions.
17. At the same time, we also remain confident that proposals will not place an undue burden on business. Companies will be expected to take reasonable and proportionate steps to
protect users. This will vary according to the organisation's associated risk, first and foremost, size and the resources available to it, as well as by the risk associated with the service provided. To ensure clarity about how the duty of care could be
fulfilled, we will ensure there is sufficient clarity in the regulation and codes of practice about the applicable expectations on business, including where businesses are exempt from certain requirements due to their size or risk.
18. This will help companies to comply with the legislation, and to feel confident that they have done so appropriately.
19. We recognise the importance of the
regulator having a range of enforcement powers that it uses in a fair, proportionate and transparent way. It is equally essential that company executives are sufficiently incentivised to take online safety seriously and that the regulator can take action
when they fail to do so. We are considering the responses to the consultation on senior management liability and business disruption measures and will set out our final policy position in the Spring.
Protection of children
20. Under our proposals we expect companies to use a proportionate range of tools including age assurance, and age verification technologies to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content and to protect them from
other harms. This would achieve our objective of protecting children from online pornography, and would also fulfil the aims of the Digital Economy Act.
Oliver Dowden was appointed Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on 13 February 2020.
He was previously Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office, and before that, Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office. He was
elected Conservative MP for Hertsmere in May 2015.
The previous Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan will now be spending more time with her family.
There's been no suggestions that Dowden will diverge from the government path on setting out a
new internet censorship regime as outlined in its OnlIne Harms white paper.
Perhaps another parliamentary appointment that may be relevant is that Julian Knight has taken over the Chair of the DCMS Select Committee, the Parliamentary scrutiny body
overseeing the DCMS.
Knight seems quite keen on the internet censorship idea and will surely be spurring on the DCMS.
And finally one more censorship appointment was announced by the Government. The government has appointed Ofcom to
regulate video-sharing platforms under the audiovisual media services directive, which aims to reduce harmful content on these sites. That will provide quicker protection for some harms and activities and will act as a stepping stone to the full online
harms regulatory framework.
Matt Warman, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced:
We also yesterday appointed Ofcom to regulate video-sharing platforms under the
audiovisual media services directive, which aims to reduce harmful content on these sites. That will provide quicker protection for some harms and activities and will act as a stepping stone to the full online harms regulatory framework.
In Fact this censorship process is set to start in September 2020 and in fact Ofcom have already produced their solution that shadows the age verification requirements of the Digital Economy Act but now may need rethinking as some of the enforcement
mechanisms, such as ISP blocking, are no longer on the table. The mechanism also only applies to British based online adult companies providing online video. of which there are hardly any left, after previously being destroyed by the ATVOD regime.