“Weak, overdue, ineffective”: Government approach to online harms raises more questions than it answers
Shadow Digital Minister urges swift action and clarity on legislation
Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow digital minister, has responded to the Government’s online harms initial response, commenting:
“The UK is facing an epidemic of online harms and it’s a crisis that’s been years in the making. The first reported social media suicide was more than a decade ago, and there have been too many tragic cases since. Today’s “initial consultation response” on online harms from the Government is a very modest step in the right direction, but it is ultimately weak, overdue and ineffective.”
The Questions this response doesn’t answer
“There are too many questions that this ‘initial response’ fails to answer. What does this response do to prevent the ripe misinformation on the Coronavirus circulating on Tiktok? How would this approach prevent suicides, like the terrible tragedy of 14 year old Instagram user Molly Russell? Would this response mean that innocent consumers no longer lose savings through fraudulent unregulated financial products they’ve discovered through social media adverts? If the Culture Secretary still can’t provide meaningful answers to these questions after all this time, then this response is lacking and years has been wasted.”
The need for swift action and clarity on legislation
“For the sake of affected families and the 50 per cent of parents who are worried about the impact of harmful online content, we urgently need new laws to ensure that social media companies do not harm public health or poison political debate. Over the last decade, there have been 13 voluntary codes of practice for tech companies – none have achieved child safety online. Sadly, this response is ambiguous on whether or not the Government is truly committed to legislation. That’s just not good enough – children and vulnerable adults need swift action now.”
On new powers and the role of Ofcom
“We urgently need more information on what powers Ofcom will have to hold social media companies to account and what exactly it will consider to be an “online harm”. The Government has been promising legislation for years – since their 2017 manifesto – and their White Paper was published nearly a year ago. They still haven’t got a draft Bill to show us, just an “initial consultation response” with more to wait for, and a new Secretary of State due to take over in an imminent reshuffle. Even more dithering continues to let down children and vulnerable adults.
“I have concerns about giving Ofcom this role. The Government’s own consultation suggests that the majority of organisations and individuals responding wanted to see a new regulator introduced. The response says that Ofcom will not investigate and adjudicate on individual complaints. This leaves major questions on how worried parents can keep their children safe in practice if individual complaints are out of scope. I would like to see a new independent regulator established, but the first priority should be to enshrine the duty of care in law as soon as possible.
“The response talks of a risks-based approach to investigations, without further specifics of what this means in practice. This raises even more unanswered questions: Will such an approach be quick enough to prevent loss of life? Can a risks-based approach work when users are incrementally nudged through algorithms to ever more extreme content?”
Scope and remit
“The response says that only a very small proportion of UK businesses fit within their definition that this response applies to. But what about businesses providing platforms that are not based in the UK? How has the Government come to its conclusion that only 5% of UK businesses would be in scope?”
Asleep at the wheel
“The UK is a leading digital economy and being a global leader brings with it responsibilities. To achieve genuine safety and uphold the reputation of the UK’s digital economy, we need swift action and urgent legislation – before we lose more of our children to these harms.”
- Chi Onwurah MP is the shadow digital minister. She is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering Technology and spent twenty three years working as an engineer in telecoms and technology, including as Head of Technology at Ofcom and worked as a telecommunications engineer for twenty three years rolling out telecoms infrastructure in countries as diverse as Germany, Nigeria and Singapore.
- The Government’s initial consultation response on online harms is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/online-harms-white-paper/public-feedback/online-harms-white-paper-initial-consultation-response