The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The Online Harms Bill Moves Forward… Slowly.

 

By Colin Ward

Deputy Director, Children's Media Foundation 


It’s heartening to see that the UK Government has leapt into action in response to the article in last month’s CMF newsletter, which highlighted the lack of progress in bringing forward legislation to protect children online. The famously nimble Whitehall machine has creaked into first gear and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and (also) Sport has now published its more detailed response to the consultation process that was put in place after the publication of the original Online Harms White Paper.

Just to recap, the original White Paper was published in April 2019. The consultation process on that White Paper ran from April to July 2019 and the government published its initial response to that process six months later in February 2020. So, to be honest, it’s highly unlikely this latest ‘response’ was published in a burst of energy provoked by our article, given it has taken government eighteen months to get to this point.

And, of course, that is not remotely funny on any level. The current estimate for introducing legislation to protect children is some time in 2021, which will be four years since Molly Russell took her own life after viewing graphic content on suicide and self-harm on a social media site. Even allowing for the challenges we have faced this last year, the government’s failure to address these issues is completely unacceptable.

“The consultation highlighted the urgent need for action to protect users, particularly children, from significant harm” (Online Harms White Paper: Full Government Response to the Consultation 2020: 91).

 

 

In that context it is hard to be positive about what the government has achieved, but I will try. The main positive is the news that has made all the headlines; the government intends to create a regulatory framework with teeth, notably the power to fine companies up to £18 million or 10% of their annual global turnover, whichever is higher. Any company that serves UK users will fall under the legislation, but there is some protection for SME’s (Small and medium-sized enterprises) who might struggle to meet all the requirements. The new rules will operate via a tiered system with the larger companies – such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok – placed in tier one and given extra responsibilities. But government expects less than 3% of UK businesses will fall within the scope of the legislation.

The organisation tasked with enforcing the new regulatory framework will be Ofcom, which makes sense given its fairly decent track record on regulating media companies. And while the Online Harms Bill continues its glacial progress towards becoming law, Ofcom is already involved in working with the DDCMS on how to ensure transparency with respect to children’s online experiences and the efforts made by the large media companies to protect them from harmful content.

“The Online Safety Bill, which will give effect to the regulatory framework outlined in this document, will be ready in 2021" (Government Response 2020: 13).

Transparency is a significant building block in the new framework, because you can’t help children if you don’t actually know what is happening to them or how current protections are working. And it will be up to Ofcom, as the regulator, to determine the specific information that companies should include in their transparency reports. Given the way many of these companies jealously guard their data, this has the potential to transform our relationship with the most popular internet-based media services.

So there are reasons to be more cheerful, if not actually cheerful. The CMF will continue working with our partner organisations to put pressure on government to accelerate its efforts and we will keep you informed. But these two sentences from the conclusion of the recently published response to the white paper consultation, which are separated by only a few lines of text, suggests the government is still struggling to resolve its priorities.

Policy

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