UK Government plans new laws to protect social media users

The government is planning to implement new laws and regulate social media platforms in order to better protect users from online abuse and disinformation. In its response to last October’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper, the government said that there is a disconnect between the measures technology companies have put in place and the experience of users online.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office will jointly work on a White Paper with other government departments, to be published later this year. This will set out legislation to be brought forward that aims to tackle a range of both legal and illegal harms, from cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation. The Government will continue to collaborate closely with industry on this work.

Since the publication of the green paper, the government has consulted with a broad range of organisations, including technology companies, and the public, on the experience of users online and the negative impact social media can have.

However, of the 39 platforms identified as the main sites, apps and games that children use the most, only 12 of the platforms responded to the consultation. The government said that this is a “major concern” and that it wants all platforms to be engaged with the work.

Social media platforms Facebook and Twitter recently gave evidence to MPs about how they monitor online abuse, which varies from tools that include AI technologies to more manual processes and resourcing.

The responses to this consultation found that 60% of respondents had witnesses inappropriate or harmful content online, whilst 41% said that they had experienced line abuse.

There was strong support across all sectors, including technology companies, for the three principles that underpin the government’s work:

• What is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online;
• All users should be empowered to manage online risks and stay safe; and
• Technology companies have a responsibility to their users, and for the content they
host.

Matt Hancock, DCMS Secretary of State said:

Digital technology is overwhelmingly a force for good across the world and we must always champion innovation and change for the better. At the same time I have been clear that we have to address the Wild West elements of the Internet through legislation, in a way that supports innovation. We strongly support technology companies to start up and grow, and we want to work with them to keep our citizens safe.

People increasingly live their lives through online platforms so it’s more important than ever that people are safe and parents can have confidence they can keep their children from harm. The measures we’re taking forward today will help make sure children are protected online and balance the need for safety with the great freedoms the internet brings just as we have to strike this balance offline.

Moving forward
The government notes that whilst it welcomes technology companies’ efforts to protect users, the feedback it has received suggests that these efforts appear to be at odds with users’ experiences. Responses to the consultation suggest that the government needs to create a “level playing field so that all companies are meeting consistent standards”.

The government’s forthcoming White Paper, which will be published before the end of this year, will set out more definitive steps on online harms and safety. It will set out plans for upcoming legislation that will cover the full range of online harms.

The government states that it believes that these new measures will bring about significant benefits for all users by setting clear rules on how harmful and illegal behaviour and content should be dealt with. The code and transparency reporting will also, according to this week’s announcement, support platforms by creating a level playing field and ensuring that all companies are contributing to safety improvements, not just the largest providers.

In terms of new policy areas being considered, the government will focus on:

• age verification to assist companies to enforce terms and conditions;
• policies aimed at improving children and young people’s mental health, including the
impact of screen time;
• tackling issues related to live-streaming; and,
• further work to define harmful content.

The government also noted that a number of responses to the consultation, particularly those from charities, suggested that the proposed code of practice should be legally binding and underpinned by an independent regulator, backed up by a sanctions regime. Some respondents have called an independent regulator with defined legal powers to describe minimum standards, and to enforce those standards using a range of tools including an ability to levy substantial fines.

Commenting on the forthcoming White Paper, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, said:

Criminals are using the internet to further their exploitation and abuse of children, while terrorists are abusing these platforms to recruit people and incite atrocities. We need to protect our communities from these heinous crimes and vile propaganda and that is why this Government has been taking the lead on this issue.

But more needs to be done and this is why we will continue to work with the companies and the public to do everything we can to stop the misuse of these platforms. Only by working together can we defeat those who seek to do us harm.”