31 May 2019

The government’s plans to deal with online harm risk making matters worse

By Daniel Dyball

No one wants the internet to be a source of harm. Our industry has always carried with it the optimism with which the internet was born. The ability of a single individual to speak to the whole world, to be connected with the all the learning humanity has ever generated, and to be able to do business with anyone anywhere in the world creates unprecedented opportunities and freedoms.

This growth has not come without potential downsides, with “online harms” chief among them. Our industry has a vested interest in minimising these harms. That is why we continue to work hard and engage with Government to reach a regulatory framework that will tackle harms but retain the huge benefits that the internet brings to everyday life.

Our members want their services to be places that everyone feels are safe to use. Ensuring we achieve that ambition is not easy, but as an industry we are committed to reducing harms as much as is currently possible – and what is possible is increasing every month.

Rather than a ‘wild west’ as some have described, internet companies take meaningful steps to ensure their services protect users from harm. From working with groups like the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit and forming the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) to curtail the spread of terrorism and violent extremism online, through to investing millions in state of the art AI and human content moderation systems and teams, the industry works hard to get this right.

But we are concerned that the proposals in the Online Harms White Paper published by the Government last month are not sufficiently targeted or proportionate to the harms they are designed to minimise. Instead, they risk muddying the water and making it harder, not easier, for companies to get this right.

Our concerns with the White Paper are published today and include a number of areas that we believe are risking the success of the Government’s ambition to make the UK the safest place to be online in the world – an ambition that we share unconditionally.

A Duty of Care model, which has been used in other areas such as health and safety, is hard to apply online and will need to be clearly defined. It is easy, for example, to ascertain when an employee has suffered a physical accident under current health and safety laws, but many of the harms targeted by the white paper, such as cyberbullying and trolling, extremist content or disinformation, have a much less clear definition.

Other parts of the White Paper suffer from the same lack of detail. The scope of the services needs to be more closely related to the harms the paper intends to address. The White Paper talks about “user-generated content” and anywhere “where users can interact with each other online” as being in scope.

But this is the very basis of the internet – and brings millions of ordinary people into this regulatory framework. Forums that mothers or football fans love to use, hotel review sites and much more are all included in scope – a move that puts all of these sites under impossible strain.

This leads to dangerous implications for freedom of expression online. By drafting such a wide, catch-all proposal the Government has – by accident or design – raised questions about the ongoing ability to freely debate, report and discuss online. The White Paper rightly argues that the regulator should “not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online”. But it will be hard for this safeguard to have teeth while maintaining the current unspecified definition of online harms, particularly as this includes “disinformation”.

This is in the context of the huge benefits that the internet provides. The internet sector is a powerhouse for the UK economy. It grew by over 21 per cent between 2012 and 2016 – approximately 4.2 per cent on average per year, more than double the UK national GDP growth rate of 2 per cent over the same period. It directly accounts for 400,000 jobs across the country and its contribution to GDP is more than double that of the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector. The Internet Association’s analysis estimates the contribution of the internet sector to GDP at approximately £45 billion per year.

Ministers and officials have taken great care and many months to draft this White Paper. But there is still further to go in order to make sure these plans deliver what is needed and doesn’t undermine its own objectives. Serious thought must be applied in several areas, and the government should be brave enough to listen to genuine concerns from consumers and the industry.

We believe that regulation can co-exist with – and even enhance – a vigorous internet economy, and that internet companies can continue to provide the services that the public love and so many of us rely on. But for those objectives to be realised, regulation will have to be drawn carefully. Otherwise it will be the UK itself – consumers, businesses and government – which will lose out.

The White Paper is the first of many steps required, and internet companies will continue to work with ministers to make sure the full benefits of the internet are delivered and concerns are heard and acted on.

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Daniel Dyball is UK Executive Director of the Internet Association