techUK contributes to the Online Harms debate

Tackling Online HarmsToday, techUK publishes it’s Tackling Online Harms paper ahead of the publication of the long-awaited Government White Paper on Online Harms. The paper explores the key principles techUK believes must underpin smart policy and practice in this space. techUK hopes that this paper helps crystallise thinking in what is an incredibly complex and nuanced debate that has been subject to plenty of noisy headlines.

Much of the debate has focused on regulation with the myth that the online world is a ‘Wild West’ being continually repeated. This couldn’t be further from the truth – as well as being governed by all the laws that apply offline, over time further regulation has been developed specifically in response to online challenges. As digital technologies and services evolve it is only right that the regulatory framework evolves alongside it. In fact, we have seen how smart regulation has helped to drive growth and promoted innovation.

Smart policy is hard to develop, it is particularly hard when it engages the most fundamental freedoms that open and healthy democracies rely on – access to information and freedom of speech. Simply put – content regulation at its core is about regulating interactions between people.

As a society our opinion of harm changes over time, and there will always be a spectrum of harm from the clearly illegal to the harmful but not illegal. Overlaying that is the fact that the harm felt will be different from individual to individual whether that is dependent on age or just simply personal opinion and taste. Different harms will need different solutions and flexibility is absolutely key.

If new policy or new regulation is to be discussed then first Government and Parliament must be clear on exactly what harms they want to be addressed and the trade-offs that become necessary to achieve that. This is crucial. Private companies should not be writing the rule book when such fundamental rights are at stake and vague definitions and boundaries will not help any new regulator either.

Bearing this in mind techUK recommends the following:

  1. A a principles-led approach that acknowledges the diversity of the platforms in operation and accounts for the differences in size and capability. We welcome government’s acknowledgement that a one-size fits all, inflexible solution is unlikely to be effective.
  2. The Government must commission further research to build an evidence base of harms to ensure that policy interventions are targeted in the most appropriate manner. The Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper response made a number of commitments with regards to gathering evidence from experts, techUK hopes this evidence is both published and used to inform the White Paper.
  3. Retain the current framework for limitations to liability, and build upon it by consulting on further policy and practice which can enhance efforts to combat specific harms.  As the Government examines what improvements can be made it must be alive to the unintended consequences these changes could have on the wider digital economy and in other sectors or areas of Government policy.
  4. Consider the findings of the Law Commission review into Abusive and Offensive Online Communications and ensure legal clarity and unambiguous legal definitions is a guiding principle of the White Paper. 
  5. Develop government policy which stands up to external scrutiny and meets the highest international standards of transparency and accountability and maintains an open an innovative environment that promotes freedom of expression.
  6. Recognise these challenges coming down the line and anticipate the need to develop new and inventive operational methods to identify and disrupt illegal activity.

Tackling Online Harms (pdf)

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