The UK’s Online Harms White Paper: A Closer Look

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Photography by www.cambridgeweddingphotographers.co.uk "
Photography by www.cambridgeweddingphotographers.co.uk

Photography by www.cambridgeweddingphotographers.co.uk

The UK government has rolled out a new regulatory framework with the ambitious goal of making the country “the safest place in the world to go online.” However, as we delve into the Online Harms White Paper, it becomes clear that the pursuit of safety may come at the cost of fundamental rights and freedoms of online users.

Understanding the White Paper’s Propositions

The 102-page document, a collaborative effort between the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, places the responsibility for “harmful content” on online platforms squarely on the shoulders of hosting companies. Failure to address such content could lead to severe penalties and fines. This means that the social media giant Facebook, for instance, might find itself answerable for the content of a simple status update.

Vague Definitions and Uncertainties

While the paper outlines the “reasonable steps” companies should take, it falls short in defining what exactly constitutes “harmful content.” The proposed regulation covers a spectrum of online harms, including trolling and cyberbullying, even if these actions are not illegal in the UK. This lack of clarity raises concerns about potential overreach and the granting of excessive power to regulate content.

Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, points out the irony in the government’s approach: “They’re saying, ‘We don’t like Facebook, so we’re going to give Facebook more power to regulate our content more,’ it’s a terrible irony.”

Neglecting Fundamental Rights

The white paper claims to uphold core values such as freedom of expression, but it falls short in discussing how the regulator should protect this fundamental right. There’s a noticeable absence of discourse on due process or acknowledgment of potential issues arising from the proposed regulations.

Sweeping Regulations Impacting All

One of the most sweeping aspects of the proposal is its applicability to all companies facilitating user-generated content, regardless of size. This includes start-ups, small-and-medium enterprises, and even charitable organizations. The burden of compliance may force companies to implement measures like upload filters, a luxury only larger corporations can afford, potentially stifling the growth of smaller platforms.

White Paper in Consultation Stage—Have Your Say

As the white paper enters the consultation stage, the UK government seeks input from various experts until July 1, 2019. While the goal is to enhance online safety, there’s a palpable risk of sacrificing fundamental freedoms, as warned by the digital campaign organization Open Rights Watch. The fear is that the proposed regulatory model could become a blueprint for broader internet censorship, both in repressive and democratic regimes.

If you want to share your perspective on the Online Harms White Paper, you can respond to it here or through this email.

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