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Update on Online Harms

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport written statement – made on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Morgan of Cotes Baroness Morgan of Cotes The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

DCMS and the Home Office are today publishing an initial response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation. This is an important step towards our aim of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business.

There is widespread public consensus that online platforms must do more to ensure their services are safe for all users, particularly children, while promoting freedom of expression online. Furthermore, a recent Ofcom report showed that 61% of adults and 79% of 12-15 year old internet users reported having had at least one potentially harmful experience online in the previous 12 months.

The White Paper set out world-leading proposals to tackle these issues by introducing a statutory duty of care. This will ensure that companies have appropriate systems and processes in place to improve the safety of their users. The duty of care would be enforced by an independent regulator.

We consulted extensively following the White Paper's publication. Today’s initial response reflects the views of a diverse range of stakeholders, including organisations, industry experts, civil society, academia, and the public.

In the response, we set out the direction of travel on a number of the key themes from the consultation. In particular, we are announcing that we are minded to appoint Ofcom as the online harms regulator. Ofcom is a highly respected regulator, possessing the expertise, experience and independence needed to take on this new role.

The Ofcom Board have appointed Dame Melanie Dawes as its new Chief Executive. Given that the Government will be considering the detail of this new regulatory agenda and the role Ofcom will have, and now that the new Chief Executive is in place, the Government would like a Chair to be able to oversee the successful implementation of any changes in full. Lord Burns has therefore agreed to step down to enable a new Chair to be in place by the end of this year. He has also agreed to stay on until the new Chair is in post to ensure a smooth transition.

The response also sets out some of the explicit safeguards and measures which the regulator will take to protect freedom of expression, and to ensure that the online environment remains one in which open and vibrant discourse can take place. As part of our proposals, we will ensure there are safeguards in the legislation to ensure companies and the new regulator have a clear responsibility to protect users’ rights online. We will also introduce greater transparency about the removal of content, with the opportunity for users to appeal, which we are confident will help to safeguard freedom of expression.

Additionally, the consultation reinforced the importance of clarity and certainty for businesses. We are mindful of the need for proportionate regulation, and our regulatory framework will target those platforms which present the greatest risk. The ‘duty of care’ will therefore only apply to companies that facilitate the sharing of user generated content, for example through comments, forums or video sharing. Our analysis so far suggests that fewer than 5% of UK businesses will be in scope of this regulatory framework. Moreover, business to business services, which pose a low risk to individuals and have limited opportunities to address harm, will not have requirements placed on them.

Our proposals will introduce higher levels of protection for children. We will expect companies to use a proportionate range of tools including age assurance and age verification technologies to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate or harmful content. This would achieve our objective of keeping children safe online, and would also fulfil the aims of the Digital Economy Act to prevent children from being exposed to online pornography.

This is a complex policy area, and work is not yet complete. We will publish a full response to the consultation in the spring, setting out further policy details ahead of legislation. We will continue to engage with interested parties as we shape future proposals.

Our proposals to tackle online harms is part of the Government’s wider work to develop a strategic approach for governing digital technologies. We will ensure our overarching regulatory regime is fundamentally pro-innovation and agile, adapting dynamically to the rapid emergence of new technologies.

I am placing copies of the response in the libraries of the House, and it will also be available on gov.uk.