Online Harms White Paper: “more systematic and holistic (and less emotive) approach” required

July 18, 2019

The SCL response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation has been finalised and can be read in full here.

The consultation sought views on proposals put forward by the Home Office and Department of Media, Culture and Sport in a White Paper published in April this year and reported here. The deadline for responses was 1 July 2019.

The SCL response was co-ordinated and collated by Trish Shaw, a Trustee of SCL, and Fiona Whiteside, a barrister at Twenty Essex, following a call for comments from our members. Reflecting on what she had read after submission of the response, Trish’s personal view is that the “problem is more widespread than what the proposed framework puts forward” ”the definitions of what constitutes an online harm needs certainty and clarity.  If not managed well, freedom of expression could be seriously curtailed in a way which is unintended”. 

On top of that, the judgement of whether content is harmful  should not be left to the companies themselves, but led by a regulator, though Trish adds that:

“If this were given to any regulator today (although many are actively upping their game), they would be out of their depth. A great deal more learning regarding the impacts of algorithmic intelligent systems (including the tensions and trade offs) needs to be done at Westminster….. There is clearly more work to be done. I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg for policymakers and legislators with which to reconcile. There needs to be a much more systematic and holistic (and less emotive) approach made to what is going to be the new digital ecosystem for us all.”

She does hope that the recent announcements by the ICO regarding Adtech, the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport’s call for rules around digital campaigning and online political advertising and the Competition and Market Authority’s Market Study on online platforms and digital advertising, coupled with the drive by many regulators to recruit data scientists and digital expertise, may result in something more concrete. 

The response also reflects concerns as to whether the Government’s proposed “one regulation fits all” approach will work. The diverse threats and problems which Government are seeking to tackle and the wide range of sectors they are targeting could leave the proposed regulator in a very difficult position, caught between burdensome over-regulation (stifling innovation) and dangerous under-regulation. What is clear is that for the proposals to be effective  the UK must develop a more holistic strategy (including extra-territorial measures).

As yet, there is no indication of when the Government’s response to the consultation will be published and it is likely that primary legislation will be required to implement any reform.