Online harms: where are we now?

September 10, 2020

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By Maeve Walsh, Carnegie Associate

Parliament has returned to business this week and the countdown to the introduction of the Government’s online harms proposals is now underway in earnest. The last formal update on the Online Harms White Paper came in the shape of the interim report back in February, published just a day before a reshuffle ushered in a new Secretary of State (Oliver Dowden) at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and a new Minister (Caroline Dinenage) in charge of the policy area. Then the pandemic struck, lockdown started, Parliament broke up and yet more delivery and policy pressures were heaped upon an already overloaded Government programme. However, there is no doubt that the case for regulatory action on online harms has risen during the past six months: the NSPCC has reported increased risks to children online during lockdown; cases of Covid19-related fraud and scams have become prevalent; and pandemic misinformation and online conspiracy theories have led to real-world consequences, from the burning down of 5G masts to an increase in anti-vaccine sentiment. The UK-US Trade Talks which commenced in May, could well have a bearing on the extent and scope of the UK’s regulatory aims, while in the US, all eyes are on November’s Presidential elections and the actions of the platforms to get a grip on disinformation in time to protect the democratic process.

It’s in this context that DCMS has pledged to publish its full response to the Online Harms White Paper and bring forward a Bill within this Parliamentary session. In the meantime, Parliamentary scrutiny will increase: in the Commons, a new APPG – set up by Jeremy Wright and Baroness Kidron – will focus on online regulation while both the Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee and the DCMS Select Committee are waiting for Government responses to their recent reports. The results of enquiries by the Home Affairs Committee (on Covid 19 impacts on online harms), the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Petitions Committee (online abuse) are due shortly, while in the Lords, the Online Harms Reduction Regulator (Report) Bill awaits a date for Second Reading and another former DCMS Minister (Ed Vaizey) joins the array of tech experts already amassed on the red benches. In Europe, the Commission’s consultation on the Digital Services Act has just closed.

It’s going to be a busy autumn. So, we’re launching a regular Online Harms newsletter to help keep track of the policy and legislative developments, support and share the work of the many organisations contributing to the debate and build the community of expertise during this critical time. Sign up here and share the word.

You can read all our previous work on the development of the proposal for a statutory duty of care for online harm reduction here.