The Online Harms White Paper: can progress be made during the COVID-19 pandemic?

United Kingdom

In March 2020, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (“the Inquiry”) published The Internet Investigation Report (“the Report”) which concluded that regulation of the internet industry is now required. The Inquiry looked at different types of online child abuse and their impacts on victims, as well as the response from the industry and the government. Witnesses at the Inquiry, including representatives from well-known social media companies and online platforms, did not disagree that regulation was required. The Report also concluded that interim codes of practice should be established until a new regulatory framework is implemented.

The government introduced the approach to online regulation within The Online Harms White Paper (“the White Paper”). The White Paper, published in April 2019, outlines the government’s proposals to give powers to a regulator to oversee and enforce a regulatory framework, including a code of practice. The White Paper proposes the introduction of a statutory duty of care which would require companies to take a greater responsibility for the safety of users and tackle harms caused by content or activity on their services. It is proposed that the duty of care will apply to companies and organisations including, but certainly not limited to, social media companies, public discussion forums, file sharing sites and cloud hosting providers. While it appears that the proposed duty of care could encompass a wide range of businesses, the government has estimated that fewer than 5% of businesses in the UK would be included. There is currently no further information as to which businesses or organisations this will include, but the government has confirmed that they will publish guidance to assist businesses in determining whether they are in scope.

It is clear that the government expects companies to act now against harmful content. The White Paper has also proposed that interim codes of practice would be published to bridge the gap. If such codes were published as an interim response, they would only be voluntary which raises questions in relation to compliance. Evidence at the Inquiry suggested that the larger online platforms and social media companies were already taking action to limit online harms, but it is unclear how smaller companies with more limited resources would be expected to achieve the same results.

The education sector is playing an important role in the prevention of online harms while legislation is awaited. The Department for Education has introduced a new curriculum, Relationship Education and Relationship and Sex Education, which is mandatory in all primary schools and secondary schools from September 2020. The intention is that there will be a greater focus on teaching children about online harms as a preventative measure. This would work in conjunction with the proposed amendments to the safeguarding guidance “Keeping children safe in education”, which included changes to guidance relating to online abuse to encourage schools to consider this as part of their whole school safeguarding approach. Such amendments seem sensible to close the gap until legislation can be passed, but such proposals will have little effect, especially while children remain at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a temporary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government has published guidance entitled “Coronavirus (COVID-19): support to parents and carers to keep children safe online” providing parents and carers with information in relation to different types of child sexual abuse. This is crucial advice for parents and carers to be able to identify signs of abuse, particularly at a time when their children are not attending school and are spending less time with teachers who are trained to recognise safeguarding concerns.

The Inquiry confirmed that as part of their final report they would be considering regulation further as well as the Government’s commitment to progressing the Online Harms Bill. The position as at February 2020 was that the legislation was due to be introduced in the next parliamentary session. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been little progress and it is likely, although not confirmed, that the introduction to Parliament has been put on hold. Until a time when the government focus can be taken away from the pandemic, it appears that little progress will be made in relation to legislation or any changes to the current safeguarding guidance to tackle online harms.

If you are a health, education or social care provider and require advice or assistance in relation to online harms and safeguarding vulnerable individuals, particularly during the COVID-19 outbreak, please contact us.