Reducing Online Harm: UK’s Proposed Regulated Framework for the Internet

In case you hadn’t noticed, the internet can be a dark and scary place. Though it’s also home to various things that, let’s be real, make life worth living some days.

But if you’re a child, senior, concerned adult, or pretty much anyone else, there are some very real and potential dangers that exist online in all sorts of forms. Which, if we’re honest, is pretty stressful! With this in mind, the UK has drafted an extensive 102-page Online Harms White Paper calling for a “duty of care” that, should this proposal become policy, all technology giants would be forced to have in order to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online or grow a digital business.

With rules such as these implemented, the hope is to improve online safety and rebuild the confidence of UK-based internet users. We’re in an age where the terms “keyboard warrior”, “troll”, and “cyber-bullying” have very real meanings and effects on people, brands, publications, and especially underaged internet users. Not to mention, that the information and opinions shared online can be false, undermine democratic values, harmful, or containing some of the most serious illegal content and activity.

The Online Harms White Paper goes on further, discussing the slanted view that oft-users of social media or other online news sources may get:

“Social media platforms use algorithms which can lead to ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’, where a user is presented with only one type of content instead of seeing a range of voices and opinions. This can promote disinformation by ensuring that users do not see rebuttals or other sources that may disagree and can also mean that users perceive a story to be far more widely believed than it really is.”

The paper goes on to acknowledge that there have been attempts to regulate the ill-effects of social media’s filtering or other nefarious activities but none have gone far or fast enough and often with wavering levels of consistency.

So what to do!?

The U.K.’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Secretary of State for the Home Department suggests setting clear standards that will help companies ensure “the safety of users . . . , promote a culture of continuous improvement . . . , and provide clarity for the wide range of businesses that are in the scope of the proposed framework. . . ” If all goes well, the UK is slated to become an international leader in setting “coherent, proportionate and effective approach that reflects [their] commitment to a free, open and secure internet.”

What are the goals of the Online Harms White Paper?

While not all the specifics and nitty-gritty details have been hammered out, it seems as though the UK government is pretty clear on their end goal and the kind of internet experience they want to create for UK residents.

As their White Paper states, their goals with these proposed regulations are:

– Freedom of expression online

– An online environment where companies take effective steps to keep their users safe, and where criminal, terrorist and hostile foreign state activity is not left to contaminate the online space

– Rules and norms for the internet that discourage harmful behaviour

– The UK as a thriving digital economy, with a prosperous ecosystem of companies developing innovation in online safety

– Citizens who understand the risks of online activity, challenge unacceptable behaviours and know how to access help if they experience harm online, with children receiving extra protection

– A global coalition of countries all taking coordinated steps to keep their citizens safe online

– Renewed public confidence and trust in online companies and services

The Online Harms White Paper undoubtedly outlines some very real and present dangers, but the specifics of the “what”, “how”, and “who” are slightly more elusive. More information will come as this framework goes through more and more government levels of course, but here’s what we’ve been able to glean from their initial outline.

Who does it effect?

It seems that all companies who “allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online.  . . . including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines” will be affected by this framework. These companies will be expected to have effective and easy-to-access user complaint functions (hear that, Facebook and Instagram?!) Companies will then be expected to respond to user complaints within a decent time frame and take actions that would be cohesive with this new framework. Which sounds great, but knowing the scale of social media platforms alone, it’s worth wondering just how this change will be made.

How will this happen?

There’s no way around it—moderating any space on the internet is a massive undertaking, let alone the entire internet. Though the exact rules and regulations have yet to be clearly set and determined, the plan according to the White Paper is to establish a mandatory baseline that companies must abide by to ensure the safety of their users. When something arises that could potentially cause harm, or lead to harmful content, companies are expected to quickly and deftly deal with it. This compliance will reportedly be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator. The regulator will also require companies who fall under the above categories to prove that they are actively fulfilling their duty of care.

For companies who shirk these responsibilities, the regulator will be able to take “enforcement action”, which can include the power to issue “substantial fines and to impose liability on individual members of senior management.”

Yikes, right?

What about free speech?

We’re lucky enough to live in an area of the world where we have free access to the information we choose and the freedom to express our thoughts, opinions, and selves how we choose. With any discussions of regulations, such as those proposed in the Online Harms White Paper, for any area of the internet there comes the mention and question of free speech. It’s especially double-sided when you think about the types of companies this framework would include: ones that are basically reflections of humanity. Users post, control, and populate the content on these platforms. So if you like skateboarding, art, fashion, or video games, that’s what you’ll probably post most of and by extension see a lot of. This is also true for those who have a penchant for the darker side of life in the types of content they post and the communities they cultivate.

Of course, there are guidelines and ways to report content that violate the community guidelines of Facebook, Youtube, or Instagram but that doesn’t stop it from being there. Or from other equally, potentially more disturbing content taking its place. No advertiser wants to have their ad near something that is offensive or harmful, but there’s no steadfast way to avoid this. The only option is to remove their advertising from those platforms entirely, thereby losing all of the attention and monetary value from being on those platforms. As there hasn’t been a rush of publishers withholding their material until such regulations have been put in place, it seems the commonly held thought is ‘money is money’, regardless of where their ads end up.

The whole “free speech” debate is eloquently summed up by Stratechery:

“There are, in Internet parlance, three types of ‘free’:

1. ‘Free as in speech’ means the freedom or right to do something

2. ‘Free as in beer’ means that you get something for free without any additional responsibility

3. ‘Free as in puppy’ means that you get something for free, but the longterm costs are substantial

“The question that should be asked, though, is if preserving ‘free as in speech’ should also mean preserving ‘free as in beer.’ Specifically, Facebook and YouTube offer ‘free as in speech’ in conjunction with ‘free as in beer’: content can be created and proliferated without any responsibility, including cost. Might it be better if the content that society deemed problematic were still ‘free as in speech’, but also ‘free as in puppy’ — that is, with costs to the supplier that aligned with the costs to society?”

It seems as though the UK is simply aiming to do just that: create an internet that is “free as in puppy” by implementing a foundation of regulations that will better protect users, especially vulnerable ones, and address the unintended effects that the digital world can have on small-scale online businesses.

If you’ve got thoughts, suggestions, or are just aching to know more without the 100+ pages, you can hit up their executive summary of the Online Harms White Paper.  And if you’ve got something to say, get it in before the consultation closes at