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Online harms proposals – industry reaction

February 12, 2020

By Colin Mann

Following the UK government’s publication of its response to the Online Harms White Paper and suggestion that it is minded to appoint communications watchdog Ofcom as the regulator to enforce rules to make the Internet a safer place, a number of industry bodies and observers have shared their thoughts on the proposals.

Andrew Glover, Chair of ISPA (Internet Services Providers’ Association) said the White Paper outlined important steps towards maintaining and improving trust in online services and the wider digital economy. “ISPA’s consumer facing members have been instrumental in making the UK one of the safest places in the world to be online by providing customers with safety and security tools, so ISPA is broadly supportive of the white paper’s agenda.”

“However, in order to effectively address online harms, it is important for interventions to be targeted at the specific part of the Internet ecosystem, so we welcome the proposed approach of focusing measures on platforms that facilitate user generated content.”

“There are a number of important questions that remain unanswered – especially in a post-Brexit environment – such as how Ofcom will use its new powers, how a regulator would deal with companies not based in the UK and ISP blocking – including how the UK reacts to technical developments such as DNS-over-HTTPS. ISPA will be working with its members on these and other points as we enter the next phase of consultation,” he confirmed.

Vinous Ali, associate director of policy at trade association TechUK, said the body was pleased to see continued progress being made by Government on the issue of online harms.

“Our members remain absolutely committed to keeping users safe online and today’s announcement marks the next phase of close and constructive working between government and industry.”

“The evolution in thinking demonstrates a commitment from government to building a framework that is effective and proportionate – protecting and empowering users whilst ensuring the UK remains pro-innovation and investment. Ofcom’s experience makes it an appropriate voice in this debate but if it is to take on this new role, vastly expanding on its current remit, it must be given the appropriate resources and be upskilled to meet the challenge ahead.”

“Whilst the direction of travel is encouraging, much more work is needed to deliver clarity on questions of scope, process, legal but harmful content and enforcement. techUK will continue to work with government, Ofcom and other stakeholders to ensure the new framework has the clarity and proportionality necessary to give confidence to users and business alike,” he added.

Professor Mark Skilton, a digital communications expert at Warwick Business School and industry director of the Artificial Intelligence Innovation Network, said that civil rights activists were right to oppose government censorship, but that the online victims of child abuse, exploitation, violence, and cyberbullying were “clearly” being failed by self-regulated social media platforms. “These vulnerable victims need radical steps to enforce standards in the ‘Wild West’ that exists online. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there were more than 1.5 million suicides globally in 2020. While we don’t know the exact number that resulted from online abuse, we are both desensitised and failing to provide support for these vulnerable people. It more than just a public health issue.”

“This step by the UK Government, to empower Ofcom to ensure social media platforms are accountable for mediating this content, must go further than mere fines and shaming. While the Government has ducked the hard policy design and passed the issue to Ofcom to define the detail, I hope that legal action and mandated processes to delete offensive content become law. We should be on the side of victims in this case, not lobbyists for these social media companies.”

“I remain unconvinced this will be effective due to the complexity and scale of the problem, but investment forced by the threat of legal action seems the only way to get these social media platforms to act responsibly for society.”

Jim Killock, Executive Director of digital rights and freedoms campaign organisation Open Rights Group (ORG) said: “This is a dangerous proposal that could cause vast restrictions on free speech. The police recently included Extension Rebellion in their guidance on terrorism. Private companies would be deciding what is legal or illegal, and will always remove more than they need, rather than less. Duties could also create a vast surveillance capability to monitor content as it is posted online.”

“The government propose a state regulator overseeing the speech on millions of citizens. yet this will regulate press content by the backdoor, when posted to social media. The state should not police the speech of its citizens. That is an obvious conflict, which is why it is left to the courts.”

“Instead, the government should seek to ensure that companies have sufficient independent scrutiny of their actions. This is known as co-regulation, and could be supervised by Ofcom.”

Additionally, ORG warns that the proposed ‘duty of care’ remains an open-ended and vague concept that needs vastly clearer definition.

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