18 April 2019
The government has published its White Paper on online harms, proposing a statutory duty of care for online operators, and an independent regulator with power to order blocking of infringing sites.
Governments around the world are struggling to deal with harmful online content while preserving freedom of speech. The UK government says the digital economy "urgently needs a new regulatory framework".
It seeks to address issues around illegal and unacceptable content, online radicalisation, dissemination of online child sexual abuse, online disinformation, use of social media to promote gang violence and incite violence, and harmful online behaviours including bullying or promotion of content relating to self-harm or suicide.
The UK government has published its White Paper on online harms for consultation (open until 1 July 2019). Main proposals include establishing a statutory duty of care to make companies take responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harmful content.
An independent regulator will oversee compliance and enforcement with powers including fines, finding individual members of senior management liable and, under some circumstances, requiring site blocking. The system will be underpinned by codes of practice.
The proposed regulatory framework is intended to apply to companies which allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. This includes social media companies, public discussion forums, retail sites which allow online product reviews, file sharing sites, instant messaging services, search engines and cloud hosting providers.
While the White Paper says that the new regulatory framework will increase the responsibility of online operators in a way compatible with the eCommerce Directive, it is, however, clear that operators will no longer be able to rely solely on the safe harbor provision in the Directive which currently protects online operators which host (rather than create) content from liability for illegal content until they have notice of it and then fail to act quickly to take it down.
The proposed powers of an independent regulator which will include not only fines, but also the ability to require that access to infringing sites be blocked, are particularly controversial. Free speech campaigners see the government's proposals as overly restrictive and question whether they can even be implemented.
See our article for more detail on the proposals made in the White Paper.