Online Harms: a step in the right direction

15 12 20

The Government gave MPs an update on their approach to Online Harms today, ahead of their much-anticipated new Bill.

Like many organisations across civil society, we’ve been long warning about – and campaigning on – the harm done as a result of online behaviour. We’ve been particularly concerned about the way in which hate figures have used online platforms to recruit new supporters and radicalise people, especially the very young.

In response to the Government statement, our Senior Researcher Joe Mulhall made the following statement:

“We broadly welcome the government’s statement today. While we await the legislation to see how effectively it will enforce the principles set out, the Government have sounded the death knell for the era of self-regulation, and signalled serious action against platforms who host illegal content. We look forward to more clarity in relation to legal-but-harmful content.

“We especially welcome the moves towards co-regulation, where civil society will be involved in regulating the online space. We also welcome the government’s announcement on better designed platforms – ‘design against hate’ as it is termed – and digital literacy. These are all issues HOPE not hate has raised, and we welcome the government’s moves.

“However, we are especially concerned about the issue of smaller or bespoke platforms. The government talked a lot today about cooperating with platforms to remove hateful content. But there are platforms which proactively seek to give voice to the forces of hate, designing their platform to avoid regulation and action by authorities. We need to see more detail on how those smaller platforms will be regulated so those who seek to allow extremists to radicalise and recruit are tackled too. 

“It is also important to understand that child protection, hate speech and terror are not discrete topics. The far-right are active in the digital recruitment of children and teenagers, and we have seen a number of high-profile teenage terror convictions this year, with the problem on the increase.

“At present, online speech which causes division and harm is often defended on the basis that to remove it would undermine free speech. However, in reality, allowing such speech to be disseminated only erodes the quality of public debate, and causes harms to the groups such speech targets. This defence, in theory and in practice, minimises free speech overall. This regulation instead should aim to maximise freedom of speech online for more people, including those from minority backgrounds whose speech is consistently marginalised online and elsewhere. This principle should be front-and-centre of the government’s public information campaign surrounding this bill, as it otherwise stands to be misconstrued as an infringement upon free speech.”

“The publication of the bill should come as soon as possible, so that the legislation can be reviewed closely. Only then will we be able to see if the law will be robust enough to tackle the wave of online harms we face. At the moment, we’re none the wiser as to when the Bill will arrive, or how and when pre-legislative scrutiny will begin.”

You can read more in our recent report on Online Harms, “A Better Web.”


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