PolicyTough new measures to ensure the UK’s online safety

Tough new measures to ensure the UK's online safety

As part of the UK's online safety, social media companies and tech firms will be legally required to protect users or face tough penalties if they do not comply

The Home Secretary has unveiled tough new regulation for tech companies by introducing the world’s first online safety laws geared towards the UK’s online safety.

The updated Digital Charter, alongside the Online Harms White Paper is a major step towards ensuring that the UK remains committed to a free, open and secure Internet. The Digital Charter has been published for protecting citizens, increasing public trust in new technologies, and creating the best possible basis on which the digital economy and society can thrive.

12-week consultation on the proposals has been launched for the whitepaper. As part of the publication, a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Home Office, a new independent regulator will be introduced to ensure companies meet their responsibilities. A range of harms will be tackled, including inciting violence and violent content, encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyber bullying and children accessing inappropriate material.

Protecting user rights online

The government has balanced the clear need for tough regulation with its ambition of prioritising the UK’s online safety. The new regulatory framework will provide strong protection for citizens. Additionally, it will also drive innovation by not placing an impossible burden on smaller companies.

A regulator will be appointed to enforce the new framework. The government is consulting on whether the regulator should be a new or existing body. The regulator will be funded by industry in the medium term. The government is exploring options such as an industry levy to put it on a sustainable footing. The new independent regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to innovation. Additionally, it will have to protect users’ rights online. It will have to be particularly mindful to not infringe privacy and freedom of expression.

There will be stringent requirements for companies to take even tougher action to ensure they tackle terrorist and child sexual exploitation and abuse content.

Same rights and behaviour online and offline

The Digital Charter will be a rolling programme. It will agree to norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice. In some cases this will be through shifting expectations of behaviour and the need to agree new standards. Whereas in other cases, the government may need to update the laws and regulations. The starting point will be to have the same rights and expect the same behaviour online as well as offline.

The new online safety laws will include a mandatory ‘duty of care’ towards the UK’s online safety. This will require companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe. The companies will also have to tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services. The regulator will have effective enforcement tools to issue substantial fines. The regulator will also block access to sites and impose liability on individual members of senior management.

The proposed laws will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. This means a wide range of companies of all sizes are in scope. The range includes social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services, and search engines.

Not done enough

Prime Minister Theresa May said: “The internet can be brilliant at connecting people across the world – but for too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content.

“That is not good enough, and it is time to do things differently. We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe.

“Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms, and help restore public trust in this technology.”

Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright added “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over. Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough. Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However those that fail to do this will face tough action.

“We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business and our proposals for new laws will help make sure everyone in our country can enjoy the Internet safely.”

Home Secretary Sajid Javid commented: “The tech giants and social media companies have a moral duty to protect the young people they profit from.

“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online.

“That is why we are forcing these firms to clean up their act once and for all. I made it my mission to protect our young people – and we are now delivering on that promise.”

Culture of continuous improvement

The government has duly recognised that the internet can be a tremendous force for good. Further, the government has also recognised that technology will be an integral part of any solution. The new plans have been designed to promote a culture of continuous improvement among companies. The new regime will ensure that online firms are incentivised to develop and share new technological solutions rather than just complying with minimum requirements.. A few examples are Google’s “Family Link” and Apple’s Screen Time app.

The government will be looking to collaborate with the tech sector, businesses and civil society. All participants will be expected to own the challenges towards the UK’s online safety along with the government.

The focus on the UK’s online safety has increased in the last few months. Last month, the House of Lords Communications Committee had recommended a new regulatory framework for digital services in the UK as part of the government’s Internet Safety Strategy. On similar lines, Digital Competition Expert Panel’s review on the UK’s digital economy proposed evaluating the competition framework for a new code of conduct.

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