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  • Writer's pictureDavid Babbs

"Online Harms" in today's Queen's Speech - some first thoughts

The official purpose of today’s Queen’s Speech was to set out the government’s legislative programme for the new parliamentary session. Given the level of speculation that a general election may be imminent, it’s an open question whether the new parliamentary session will last long enough to implement much of what was announced today. Either way, however, it’s still an important indication of the governing party’s current plans.

It was therefore welcome to hear Her Majesty briefly mention the “Online Harms” agenda: “My Ministers will continue to develop proposals to improve internet safety”

Alongside this very brief mention in the Queen’s address in parliament, more detail was provided in the associated background briefing. The relevant section (from pages 61 and 62) is pasted below, and the full 130 page document can be read at:

The government seems to be proposing to build on the ideas put forward in April’s Online Harms White Paper. As Clean up the Internet set out in our consultation response, whilst not perfect, this document was an important acknowledgement of the need for government action in this area. It contained a number of proposals, such as an independent regulator and a “duty of care” on technology companies, which point in the right direction. It is welcome that this Online Harms agenda will continue despite a change of Prime Minister and new Secretaries of State.

Some have expressed a certain level of frustration that the next step will be “draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny”, as opposed to a swifter move to pass new laws. Clean up the Internet shares a sense of urgency. The current level of abuse, intimidation, harassment and misinformation which plagues online discourse harms individuals - and our democracy – every day that it continues.

However, we also recognise that this is a new area for government regulation and it’s important to get it right. In principle, pre-legislative scrutiny is a process which can lead to stronger legislation. We suggested in our response to the White Paper that the government needed to consider what more it could do to encourage technology companies to address, at a design level, the factors which encourage and enable bad behaviour on their platforms. In particular we suggest that much more which could be done to restrict the ability of anonymous, pseudonymous and unverified users to inflict abuse or misinformation on the rest of us. If pre-legislative scrutiny provides an opportunity for these issues to be properly explored, and stronger legislation to be passed eventually, then that will be time well spent.

Ultimately, whether today’s plans are delivered by the current parliament, or form part of a Conservative general election manifesto, Clean Up the Internet will continue to campaign for action to improve online discourse. If the next step is pre-legislative scrutiny, we’ll look forward to engaging with that process. And if instead the next step is an election, we’ll be asking all the major parties to set out their plans to address the many problems with the current state of online discourse.

Today's government announcement in full:

Online Harms
“My Ministers will continue to develop proposals to improve internet safety”
Britain is leading the world in developing a comprehensive regulatory regimeto keep people safe online, protect children and other vulnerable users and ensure that there are no safe spaces for terrorists online. The April 2019 Online Harms White Paper set out the Government’s plan for world-leading legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
The proposals, as set out in the White Paper were:
- A new duty of care on companies towards their users, with an independent regulator to oversee this framework.
- We want to keep people safe online, but we want to do this in a proportionate way, ensuring that freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online, and businesses do not face undue burdens.
- We are seeking to do this by ensuring that companies have the right processes and systems in place to fulfil their obligations, rather than penalising them for individual instances of unacceptable content.
Our public consultation on this has closed and we are analysing the responses and considering the issues raised. We are working closely with a variety of stakeholders, including technology companies and civil society groups, to understand their views.

Next steps:
- We will publish draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny.
- Ahead of this legislation, the Government will publish work on tackling the use of the internet by terrorists and those engaged in child sexual abuse and exploitation, to ensure companies take action now to tackle content that threatens our national security and the physical safety of children.
- We are also taking forward additional measures, including a medialiteracy strategy, to empower users to stay safe online. A Safety byDesign framework will help start-ups and small businesses to embed safety during the development or update of their products and services.
Key facts
- There is a growing threat presented from online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. In 2018, there were over 18.4 million referrals of child sexual abuse material by US tech companies to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Of those, there were 113,948 UK related referrals, up from 82,109 in 2017.
- Terrorists also continue to use online services to spread their vile propaganda and mobilise support. All five terrorist attacks in the UK during 2017 had an online element.
- There is majority support among adult internet users for increased regulationof social media (70 per cent), video sharing (64 per cent) and Instant Messaging services (61 per cent).
- When asked, 83 per cent of adults expressed concern about harms to children on the internet. Of greatest concern was bullying, abusive behaviour or threats (55 per cent) and children’s exposure to inappropriate content, including pornography, (49 per cent).

What we have done so far:
- The joint DCMS-Home Office Online Harms White Paper was published in April 2019. We also published the Social Media Code of Practice setting out actions social media platforms should take to prevent bullying, insulting, intimidating and humiliating behaviours on their sites.
- In November 2018 the Government established a new UK Council for Internet Safety. This expanded the scope of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, and was guided by the Government’s Internet Safety Strategy.
- The UK has been championing international action on online safety.The Prime Minister used his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to champion the UK’s work on online safety.

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