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What’s the problem?

There is increasing concern about harmful content and activity online. This includes cyberbullying, material promoting violence and self-harm, and age inappropriate content. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen groups using social media platforms to spread anti-vaccine misinformation.

Critics, including parliamentary committees, academics, and children’s charities, have argued that self-regulation by internet companies is not enough to keep users safe and that statutory regulation should be introduced.

The Online Harms White Paper (April 2019) – a new regulatory framework?

An Online Harms White Paper (April 2019) argued that existing regulatory and voluntary initiatives had “not gone far or fast enough” to keep users safe. The Paper proposed a single regulatory framework to tackle a range of harms. At its core would be a duty of care for internet companies, including social media platforms. An independent regulator would oversee and enforce compliance with the duty. A consultation on the proposals closed in July 2019.

The White Paper received a mixed reaction. Children’s charities were positive. However, some commentators raised concerns that harms were insufficiently defined. The Open Rights Group and the Index on Censorship warned that the proposals could threaten freedom of expression.

Government response to the White Paper consultation (December 2020)

An initial response to the consultation was published in February 2020. This stated, among other things, that the Government was minded to make Ofcom the regulator for online harms.

A full response was published in December 2020. This confirmed that a duty of care would be introduced through an Online Safety Bill and that Ofcom would be the regulator. Reaction was again mixed. Some commentators continued to argue that the framework would threaten freedom of expression and privacy. Others raised concerns about the definition of harm.

Draft Online Harms Bill (May 2021)

A draft Online Safety Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech of 11 May 2021. The draft Bill was published the following day, along with Explanatory Notes, an Impact Assessment and a Delegated Powers Memorandum.

A Joint Committee of both Houses has been established to consider the draft legislation. The Committee must report by 10 December 2021.

In line with the Government’s December 2020 response to its Online Harms consultation, the draft Bill would impose duties of care on providers of online content-sharing platforms and search services. Ofcom would enforce compliance and its powers would include being able to fine companies up to £18 million or 10% of annual global turnover, whichever is higher, and have the power to block access to sites. 

The Government has said that the draft Bill would protect freedom of expression, but critics remain unconvinced.

For a selection of comment on the draft Bill, see the Library Paper, Reaction to the draft Online Safety Bill: a reading list.

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