On 8 April 2019 the UK Government published its long awaited “Online Harms White Paper” [pdf]. This aims to reduce the diffusion of harmful content on the internet. The White Paper was launched at the British Library with a speech by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid. The Executive Summary can be found here.
The Government proposes the establishment of 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. Compliance with this duty will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator.
The regulator will have a suite of powers to take effective enforcement action against companies that have breached their statutory duty of care. This may include the powers to issue substantial fines and to impose liability on individual members of senior management.
The regulator will set out how the duty is to be fulfilled in codes of practice. The government will have the power to direct the regulator in relation to codes of practice on terrorist activity or child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) online.
The regulator will have the power to require annual transparency reports from companies in scope, outlining the prevalence of harmful content on their platforms and what counter measures they are taking to address these. These reports will be published online by the regulator, so that users and parents can make informed decisions about internet use.
The regulator will also have powers to require additional information, including about the impact of algorithms in selecting content for users and to ensure that companies proactively report on both emerging and known harms.
As part of the new duty of care, we will expect companies, where appropriate, to have effective and easy-to-access user complaints functions, which will be overseen by the regulator. Companies will need to respond to users’ complaints within an appropriate timeframe and to take action consistent with the expectations set out in the regulatory framework.
The regulatory framework will apply to companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. This will include social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines.
The Government will consult on whether the regulator should be a new or existing body. The regulator will be funded by industry in the medium term, and is exploring options such as fees, charges or a levy to put it on a sustainable footing.
The White Paper poses a series of questions about the design of the new regulatory framework and non-legislative package. The consultation will be open for 12 weeks, from 8 April to 1 July 2019. The response can be provided online here.
The White Paper has received widespread coverage including:
- “Online laws threaten freedom of speech of millions of Britons”, Guardian.
- Websites to be fined over ‘online harms’ under new proposals – BBC
- Big Tech Could Be Liable for Content That Isn’t Actually Illegal, If the U.K. Gets Its Way – Fortune
- Britain just laid out plans to end the internet’s Wild West days and take a world-leading role in regulating big tech – Business Insider