The government has published its online harms white paper, proposing to hold the heads of companies such as Google and Facebook responsible for the content shared within their platforms. This proposed legislation puts the UK at the forefront in the fight against the spread of harmful material on the internet. The new legislation will set out guidelines regarding the duty of care of tech companies with an independent body overseeing compliance. If platforms fail to meet their duty to protect internet users from online harms, the regulator will have the right to penalize them.
Online harms white paper – protecting people from damaging content
Although some have expressed fears of censorship, the government is to present the proposed legislation to MPs on Wednesday. Culture secretary, Nicky Morgan, will outline the government’s plans. The online harms white paper targets the spread of material that may cause upset or bully, especially children and young people. Moreover, terrorist propaganda, material undermining democracy, incitement to gang violence, or any content that poses a threat of harassment are to be outlawed.
Protecting the physical and mental health of children and teenagers lies at the core of these proposals. If the legislation comes into effect, publishing content on self-harm or suicide, for instance, will be illegal. The online harms white paper also sets out ways to curb online bullying and the spreading of propaganda.
The government has stressed that existing guidelines do not reach far enough. With this white paper, the UK is aiming to lead the international drive to make the internet a safer place. No other country in the world has introduced similarly comprehensive legislation.
Vision, measures, regulation, and enforcement
Making the internet a safe space while maintaining the right to free speech form the core vision of the proposal. Users should be able to spend time online without fearing any harmful content of any kind. Any material threatening the physical or mental health of users, undermining national security in any way, or contaminating the online space will no longer be acceptable.
The government also wants to make users aware of the potential risks and point them toward assistance if they encounter harmful content.
In collaboration with other countries, the UK wants to help tech companies to once again gain trust among the international public. The new regulatory frameworks will set out clear guidelines striking a balance between maintaining the right to freedom of speech and protecting website visitors from harmful content.
For tech companies, this means operating within this new framework and being accountable for the content of their websites. The government has already outlined, that Ofcom will be the independent body tasked with enforcing the new guidelines, deciding whether a company is failing to meet its duty of care. It will determine the suitability of the content.
Not only is illegal material to be banished from the internet, but also content that is ‘harmful’ to the physical or mental health of its consumers or poses a threat to national security.
It is not yet clear what penalties Ofcom will apply. The regulator may raise fines, or disrupt the services of a company in breach of its duty of care. Company officials may also receive direct penalties.
What companies will need to follow the new guidelines?
The online harms white paper aims to regulate companies of any size that “allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online.”
Messaging services, search engines, online forms, social media platforms, and file-hosting sites will all fall under the remit of the new guidelines.