The British government has introduced new online safety laws that mean social media companies and tech firms will be legally required to protect their users and face tough penalties if they do not comply.
As part of the Online Harms White Paper, a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office, a new independent regulator will be introduced to ensure companies meet their responsibilities.
This will include a mandatory ‘duty of care’, which will require companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services. The regulator will have effective enforcement tools, and the government is consulting on powers to issue substantial fines, block access to sites and potentially to impose liability on individual members of senior management.
Prime Minister Theresa May said tech companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content.
“Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms, and help restore public trust in this technology.”
A range of harms will be tackled as part of the Online Harms White Paper, including inciting violence and violent content, encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyber bullying and children accessing inappropriate material.
There will be stringent requirements for companies to take even tougher action to ensure they tackle terrorist and child sexual exploitation and abuse content.
The new proposed laws will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online. This means a wide range of companies of all sizes are in scope, including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services, and search engines.
Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said that the era of self-regulation for online companies is over.
“Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough. Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However those that fail to do this will face tough action.”
A regulator will be appointed to enforce the new framework. The government is now consulting on whether the regulator should be a new or existing body. The regulator will be funded by industry in the medium term, and the government is exploring options such as an industry levy to put it on a sustainable footing.
A 12 week consultation on the proposals has also been launched today. Once this concludes the government will then set out the action it will take in developing its final proposals for legislation.
Tough new measures set out in the White Paper include:
- A new statutory ‘duty of care’ to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services.
- Further stringent requirements on tech companies to ensure child abuse and terrorist content is not disseminated online.
- Giving a regulator the power to force social media platforms and others to publish annual transparency reports on the amount of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to address this.
- Making companies respond to users’ complaints, and act to address them quickly.
- Codes of practice, issued by the regulator, which could include measures such as requirements to limit the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation with dedicated fact checkers, particularly during election periods.
- A new “Safety by Design” framework to help companies incorporate online safety features in new apps and platforms from the start.
- A media literacy strategy to equip people with the knowledge to identify and deal with a range of deceptive and malicious behaviors online, including catfishing, grooming and extremism.
The regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to innovation, and to protect users’ rights online, being particularly mindful to not infringe privacy and freedom of expression.
The government has also announced the ‘RESIST’ toolkit, which enables organizations to develop a strategic counter-disinformation capability. The toolkit is primarily a resource for public service communications teams and it equips people with the knowledge and skills to identify, assess and respond to disinformation.
In addition, the British government is taking action on disinformation with a behavior change campaign aimed at the public. The pilot campaign has launched and aims to increase audience resilience to disinformation, by educating and empowering those who see, inadvertently share and are affected by false and misleading information. The campaign will increase the audience’s ability to spot disinformation by providing them with straightforward advice to help them check whether content is likely to be false or intentionally misleading.