UK government issues response to select committee report on online harms

September 11, 2019

The UK government has issued its response to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report on the Online Harms White Paper. The select committee report was published in July 2019 and made a series of recommendations to the government. A summary of the government responses to the four recommendations are set out below.

Recommendation one: urgent legislation should be brought forward to bring electoral law in line with digital campaigning techniques. 

The government agrees that protecting electoral and democratic processes is a key priority and is committed to making the regulatory framework as watertight as possible. The Cabinet Office has set up a defending democracy programme to coordinate work to safeguard the integrity of elections and democracy. The government also agrees with the Committee on the need for greater transparency of wider political advertising. Several social media companies have introduced measures intended to do this.

The Cabinet Office announced a commitment to implement a digital imprint regime on digital election material and the intention is to bring forward technical proposals for this regime by the end of 2019.

The Cabinet Office will be launching a consultation on electoral integrity to consider these issues in more detail. In addition, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee is undertaking a review into electoral law.

Recommendation two: exploring how anti-money laundering regulations may be adapted to ensure political parties can be held accountable for their financing practices in the era of digital payment systems

The Cabinet Office plans to consult on electoral integrity, which will look at strengthening the current provisions which protect UK elections from foreign interference. The consultation may include: increasing transparency on digital political advertising, including by third parties; closing loopholes on foreign spending in elections; preventing shell companies from sidestepping the current rules on political finance and on action to tackle foreign lobbying. HM Treasury is also taking steps to revise money laundering regulations, to transpose the Fifth Money Laundering Directive. 

Recommendation three: much of the new regulator’s success will depend on its enforcement powers. The government should take an ambitious approach to equipping the regulator with sufficient means, including adequate sanctions and extending the powers and funding of existing bodies’ resources.

The government says that any online harms regulator will need to have a range of enforcement powers to both provide incentives for good behaviour, and to take action against companies. The government has consulted on a range of further powers. This includes being able to take action to disrupt business activities, ISP blocking of non-compliant websites or apps and making senior managers personally liable. The government and the ICO want to ensure that they have the necessary powers and resources to regulate the changing landscape.

The government also continues to keep the Electoral Commission’s enforcement powers under review. The Electoral Commission has civil sanctioning powers that apply to referendums and elections. More serious criminal matters can and are referred to the police, and then considered by a court of law. The courts already have the power to levy unlimited fines. The government notes that regulation should be proportionate. The Electoral Commission is independent of government and accountable to parliament, via the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. If the Commission requests increased resources, this would be considered by the Speaker’s Committee.

Recommendation four: give the DCMS Committee a statutory veto over the appointment and dismissal of the chief executive of the new regulator. 

The government says that it is vital that the regulator can command public confidence in its independence, impartiality, capability and effectiveness. To achieve this the right accountability and governance frameworks must be in place. The White Paper makes it clear that the regulator will be accountable to Parliament, and consults on this issue. The government is now considering the responses it has received from a wide range of stakeholders to this consultation and will publish its response before the end of 2019.