Online Harms White Paper

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 8th April 2019.

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Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:21 pm, 8th April 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. The Government have today published a White Paper setting out our proposals for making the internet a safer place. For so many people, the internet is an integral part of daily life; nearly 90% of UK adults are online, and for 12 to 15-year-olds the figure is 99%. As the internet continues to grow and transform our lives, we need to think carefully about how we want it to develop. In many ways, the internet is a powerful force for good; it can be used to forge connections, share knowledge and spread opportunity across the world. But it can also be used to circulate terrorist material, undermine civil discourse, spread disinformation, and to bully or abuse.

Our challenge as a society is to help shape an internet that is open and vibrant, but that also protects its users from harm. There is clear evidence that we are not succeeding. Over 8,000 sexual offences against children with an online element were reported to the police in 2017, and that figure is continuing to rise. Up to 20% of young people in the UK have experienced bullying online. The White Paper sets out many more examples of harms suffered. People are closing their social media accounts following unacceptable online abuse. For the vulnerable, online experiences can mean cyber-bullying and the risk of grooming and exploitation. We cannot allow such behaviour to undermine the very real benefits that the digital revolution can bring. If we surrender our online spaces to those who spread hate, abuse and fear, we will all lose.

This is a serious situation and it requires a serious response. The Government have taken time to consider what we might do and how we might do it. I am grateful to Members across the House, and indeed in the other place, for their consideration of these issues, in particular the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I am also grateful for the discussions I have had, including with Tom Watson and his Opposition Front-Bench colleagues. We intend to continue those conversations and to consult on what we propose, because it is vital that we get this right.

No one has done this before. There is no comprehensive international model to follow, and there are important balances to strike, in sustaining innovation in the digital economy and promoting freedom of speech, as well as reducing harm. None of that is straightforward, and the Government should not claim a monopoly on wisdom. That is why the consultation that will follow will be a genuine opportunity for Members of the House and others to contribute to these proposals.

It is also right to recognise that some work is already being done to make the internet a safer place, including by online companies themselves, but it has not been enough and it has been too reactive. It can no longer be right to leave online companies to decide for themselves what action should be taken, as some of them are beginning to recognise. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have concluded that the Government must act and that the era of self-regulation of the internet must end.

The Government will create a new statutory duty of care, establishing it in law that online companies have a responsibility for the safety of their users. It will require companies to do what is reasonable to prevent harmful material from reaching those users. Compliance will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator. The White Paper sets out the expectations for the steps that companies should take to fulfil the duty of care towards their users, and we expect the regulator to reflect those expectations in new codes of practice. In the case of the most serious harms, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse and the promotion of terrorism, the Home Secretary will need to approve codes of practice and will also have power to issue directions to the regulator about their content. The Home Office will publish interim codes of practice on these subjects later this year. We are consulting on the role that Parliament should have in relation to the codes, too.

If online companies are to persuade the regulator that they are meeting their duty of care to keep their users safe, there will need to be transparency about what is happening on their platforms and what they are doing about it. If they are unwilling to provide the necessary information voluntarily, the regulator will have the power to require annual transparency reports and to demand information from companies relating to the harms on their platforms.

It is also important to give users a voice in this system, so that they can have confidence that their concerns are being treated fairly. We will therefore expect companies to have an effective and easy-to-access complaints function. We are consulting on two further questions—how we can potentially provide users with an independent review mechanism, and how we might allow designated bodies to make super-complaints to defend the needs of users.

For a model based on duty of care to work, those subject to it must be held to account for how they fulfil that duty. That is why we have concluded that a regulator will be necessary, whether a new entity or an extension of the responsibilities of an existing regulatory body. The regulator must be paid for by the online companies, but it is essential that it commands public confidence in its independence, impartiality and effectiveness. We propose that the scope of the regulatory framework will be to cover companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or to interact with each other online, where that activity is currently unregulated. That includes a wide variety of organisations, both big and small, from a range of sectors, and the new regulatory regime will need to be flexible enough to operate effectively across them all.

There are two key principles in such an approach. First, the regulator will adopt a risk-based approach, prioritising regulatory action to tackle harms that have the greatest impact on individuals or wider society. Secondly, the regulator will require companies to take reasonable and proportionate actions to tackle harms on their services, taking account of their size and resources. The regulator will expect more of global giants than small start-ups. It is also necessary for the regulator to have sufficient teeth to hold companies to account when they are judged to have breached their statutory duty of care. That will include the power to serve remedial notices and to issue substantial fines, and we will consult on even more stringent sanctions, including senior management liability and the blocking of websites.

However, this regulatory approach is designed to encourage good behaviour as well as punish bad behaviour. Just as technology has created the challenges that we are addressing here, technology will provide many of the solutions, for example, in the identification of terrorist videos online and images of child sexual abuse or in new tools to identify online grooming. The regulator will therefore have broader responsibilities to promote the development and adoption of these technologies and to promote safety by design.

The truth is, however, that if we focus only on what Government or the online companies do, we miss something important. We all need the skills to keep ourselves safe online, and too few of us feel confident that we have them. We will therefore task the regulator to promote those skills, and we will develop a national media literacy strategy.

This White Paper does not aspire to deal with all that is wrong with the internet; no single piece of work could sensibly do so. This White Paper forms part of the Government’s response to the many challenges that the online world brings, but it is focused on some of the most pernicious harms found online and it expects much more of the companies that operate there in tackling those harms. These are big steps, but they need to be taken.

Some will say that the internet is global so no country can act alone, but I believe that we have both a duty to act to protect UK citizens and an opportunity to lead the world on this. With well-deserved worldwide reputations for fostering innovation and respect for the rule of law, the United Kingdom is well placed to design a system of online regulation that the world will want to emulate.

The more we do online, the less acceptable it is that content which is controlled in any other environment is not controlled online. A safer internet is in the interests of responsible online companies, which want their customers to spend more time online, and it is a legitimate expectation of those we represent. That is what this White Paper will deliver, and I commend it and this statement to the House.