What is the UK’s Online Harms White Paper?

The Online Harms Whitepaper is a UK government initiative that outlines a suggested set of online safety measures for companies to follow to ensure their users, mainly children and other vulnerable groups, are safe and protected.

The paper is being driven by the UK’s Home Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and is designed to be a framework for other countries to follow suit. The proposals within the paper suggest that companies will be held accountable by an ‘independent watchdog’ for tackling online harms such as illegal activity and content, as well as harmful or toxic behaviors which are not necessarily illegal.

The launch of the whitepaper follows several high profile incidents of online harm in the UK and around the world, and could lead to similar measures being adopted in other countries.

What are the online harms?

The plan is to cover a range of issues that are clearly defined in law such as spreading terrorist content, hate crimes, child abuse, harassment and the sale of illegal goods.

However, it also covers harmful behaviors with a less clear legal definition. This means that online companies like Facebook could be held accountable for activities such as cyber-bullying, trolling and the spread of fake news and disinformation. The paper also states that social media networks must tackle material that could lead to mental health issues or advocate harmful behavior such as self-harm or suicide.

What could happen to companies found in breach?

The paper is only at the consultation stage, so the exact details are still being worked out. However, the initial proposals suggest that companies could face heavy fines, be publicly named and shamed or be forced to remove or block links to offending websites and content.

How has industry reacted?

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have reacted positively. Both companies have publicly welcomed the paper and indicated that they look forward to working towards a universal framework for tackling online harms that keeps users safe while preserving the open and free nature of the internet.

There have been concerns however that the ‘independent watchdog’ could lead to state regulation of the internet and impact freedom of speech.

While nothing is finalized just yet, this represents a significant move towards protecting vulnerable UK citizens online, and could herald further regulation around the world.

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