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Online Harms And A Statutory Duty Of Care

The Brief

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Social media has changed the landscape of communication for millions across the globe. The benefits that social networks can bring are plentiful and well documented, but the harm that many people have suffered through abusive or negative engagement with other users on these platforms, or through the impact of design choices that shape or influence the content they view, can be troubling.

Over the past three years, Carnegie UK has shaped the debate in the UK on reduction of online harm through the development of a proposal to introduce a statutory duty of care, enforced by an independent regulator, to reduce Online Harms. Our work has also influenced other international proposals and is reflected in the approach being adopted the European Union’s Digital Services Act.

Our proposal is for social media companies to design and run safer systems – taking steps to reduce the risk of reasonably foreseeable harm – not for government to regulate individual pieces of content. It is explained in detail in our 2019 reference paper and developed further through the various blog posts, papers, articles and submissions that you can find links to on this page.

The proposal has been developed by Professor Lorna Woods OBE (Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex), William Perrin OBE (Carnegie UK Trustee) and Maeve Walsh (Carnegie UK Associate).

A draft Online Harm Reduction Bill

We have developed a draft Bill to demonstrate how a regulatory scheme involving a duty of care enforced by an independent regulator might operate. We hope that this Bill can focus public debate on vital elements of how the regime might work. It is short (just 60 clauses) and sets out: a definition of a duty of care; who the duty applies to and the risk management steps that a company should take. It also makes Ofcom the regulator and grants them powers, via amendments to the Communications Act 2003, to take on these new responsibilities.

We have published a paper by Professor Lorna Woods OBE which explores the intersection between the duty of care and fundamental freedoms, in particular the right to freedom of expression and developed proposals for various codes of practice to underpin our regulatory approach, such as an approach to better protect those involved in the electoral process.

Responses to Government Online Harms proposals

Our response to the Government’s Online Harms White Paper (April 2019), in which a statutory duty of care to keep UK users safe online was first proposed, is here. We published short analyses of the Government’s interim response to the White Paper (Feb 2020), the full response (Dec 2020) and the draft Online Safety Bill (May 2021). We have continued to develop our thinking and identify areas for further consideration by policymakers through our blog posts and responses to Government and Parliamentary consultations (see sections below).

We have also published detailed thinking on a system of “regulatory interlock” to enable Ofcom to work with other regulators to address online harms as well as a blog on Covid19 misinformation and public health harms and another piece on democratic harms, which responds to the events at the US Capitol in January 2021.

Developing our proposal

We have developed our work in an open, collaborative and constructive way, sharing our thinking with academic and legal experts for critique and collaborating with policymakers, regulators campaigners, NGOs and other groups representing those who may experience harm online. We have put in many submissions to Parliamentary inquiries and other consultations (see download section below), hosted workshops and other events, and published further blogs and articles on our developing thinking. We also continue to support Parliamentarians of all parties with an interest in this issue; for example, here. William Perrin and Professor Woods received OBEs in recognition for their work in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2020.

Please see downloads for additional content including full reports, briefing notes and consultation responses.

Speak to us

Anna Grant

Senior Policy & Development Officer

Douglas White

Head of Advocacy

Maeve Walsh


Further Materials

In addition to the submissions to consultations which are available below in the download section, our work has fed into a number of media and journal articles including:

  1. LSE Online Safety Bill Briefing, Panel discussion with Prof Lorna Woods (2021) LSE
  2. Are internet algorithms a problem for human rights? Better Human Podcast interview with Prof Lorna Woods (2021) Better Human
  3. Platform Regulation ITM Universität Münster Hate Speech & Platform Regulation podcast interview with Prof Lorna Woods (2021) ITM Universität Münster
  4. Reducing Online Harms: A Statutory Duty of Care Making Sense of Tech Law podcast interview with Prof Lorna Woods (2021) SCL Student Bytes
  5. Account(Ability) Suspended: Who Governs Online Speech? Reasons to be Cheerful podcast interview with Prof Lorna Woods (2021) Reasons to be Cheerful
  6. The proposed Digital Markets Act: overview and analysis Prof Lorna Woods (2021) EU Law Analysis
  7. Britain can lead the world in reining in the tech giants if we get the details right Prof Lorna Woods and William Perrin (2020) Telegraph
  8. Overview of Digital Services Act Prof Lorna Woods (2020) EU Law Analysis
  9. European Democracy Action Plan – an Overview Prof Lorna Woods (2020) EU Law Analysis
  10. Electoral Matters Committee’s Inquiry into the Impact of Social Media on Elections and Electoral Administration, Transcript of evidence provided by Prof Lorna Woods and William Perrin (2020) Parliament of Victoria
  11. Can the Government Stop Internet Harms? Parent Zone podcast interview with William Perrin (2020) Parent Zone
  12. Online harms: we need to bring the public into public policy, Maeve Walsh (2020) Demos
  13. Me and My Trolls, File on 4 podcast with contribution from Prof Lorna Woods (2020)
  14. Perspectives on children navigating a digital world, Panel discussion with Prof Lorna Woods (2020) British Academy
  15. Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age, William Perrin essay included in this Berggruen Institute collection (2020) Berggruen Institute
  16. Why UK digital regulation makes good sense for UK digital businesses, Maeve Walsh (2020) Digital Agenda
  17. The Time has come for Action on Online Harms, Maeve Walsh (2020) RSA
  18. Will 2020 be the Year Regulation Catches up with Social Media? Maeve Walsh (2020) International Institute of Communications (IIC)
  19. How to Police Facebook and Google like a Public Place – Wall Street Journal profile by Parmy Olson (2019) Wall Street Journal
  20. Grand International Committee on Disinformation and Fake News (Transcript), Prof Lorna Woods (2019)
  21. Protecting Social Media Users: Arguing for a Duty of Care, a RightsCast podcast with Prof Lorna Woods
  22. Duty of Care, Prof Lorna Woods (2019) International Institute Of Communications
  23. Introducing A Duty Of Care For Social Media, Maeve Walsh (2018) Digital Leaders
  24. Detoxifying Social Media Would Be Easier Than You Might Think, William Perrin (2018) The Guardian