No one wants the internet to be a source of harm. Our industry has always carried with it the optimism with which the internet was born. The ability of a single individual to speak to the whole world, to be connected with the all the learning humanity has ever generated, and to be able to do business with anyone anywhere in the world creates unprecedented opportunities and freedoms.
This growth has not come without potential downsides, with “online harms” chief among them. Our industry has a vested interest in minimising these harms. That is why we continue to work hard and engage with Government to reach a regulatory framework that will tackle harms but retain the huge benefits that the internet brings to everyday life.
Our members want their services to be places that everyone feels are safe to use. Ensuring we achieve that ambition is not easy, but as an industry we are committed to reducing harms as much as is currently possible – and what is possible is increasing every month. Rather than a ‘wild west’ as some have described, internet companies take meaningful steps to ensure their services protect users from harm.
From working with groups like the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit and forming the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) to curtail the spread of terrorism and violent extremism online, through to investing millions in state of the art AI and human content moderation systems and teams, the industry work hard to get this right.
But we are concerned that the proposals in the Online Harms White Paper published by the Government last month are not sufficiently targeted or proportionate to the harms they are designed to minimise. Instead, they risk muddying the water and making it harder, not easier, for companies to get this right.
We set out our concerns with the White Paper last week and included a number of areas that we believe are risking the success of the Government’s ambition to make the UK the safest place to be online in the world – an ambition that we share unconditionally.
A Duty of Care model, which has been used in other areas such as health and safety, is hard to apply online and will need to be clearly defined. It is easy, for example, to ascertain when an employee has suffered a physical accident under current health and safety laws, but many of the harms targeted by the white paper, such as cyberbullying and trolling, extremist content or disinformation, have a much less clear definition.
This lack of detail is present in other parts of the White Paper. The scope of the services needs to be more closely related to the harms the paper intends to address. The White Paper talks about ‘user generated content’ and anywhere ‘where users can interact with each other online’ as being in scope. But this is the very basis of the internet – and brings millions of ordinary people into this regulatory framework. Forums that mothers or football fans love to use, hotel review sites and much more are all included in scope – a move that puts all of these sites under impossible strain.
This leads to dangerous implications for freedom of expression online. By drafting such a wide, catch-all proposal the Government has – by accident or design – raised questions about the ongoing ability to freely debate, report and discuss online. The White Paper rightly argues that the regulator should “not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online”. But it will be hard for this safeguard to have teeth while maintaining the current unspecified definition of online harms, particularly as this includes “disinformation”.