On Wednesday 13 May 2020, the Home Affairs Committee held a virtual session on online harms throughout the coronavirus period, and on the Online Harms White Paper more generally. The witnesses were Baroness Williams of Trafford, and Caroline Dinenage, the Minister of State for Digital and Culture at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
TIGA has summarised the take-home points from this session below:
- Main concerns throughout coronavirus crisis: Baroness Williams noted that she was concerned about domestic violence, online extremism, hate crime and disinformation/misinformation on coronavirus. For example, she referenced the false information circulating on 5G masts and their link to coronavirus. She also noted that the Prime Minister is chairing a Hidden Harms summit next week. Caroline Dinenage MP said that she was concerned about children’s mental health. The anecdotal evidence is that around 60% of calls to child safety organisations are related to children’s mental health, as they are cut off from their friends and at home. Lots of parents are also concerned about their children being safe online, and parents are also being seen to approach teachers with these concerns. She also raised her concern about revenge porn, online fraud and misinformation/disinformation.
- Progress on online harms Government response and legislation: Caroline Dinenage commented that they are still working hard on this. She noted that the coronavirus has been a very interesting test-case in demonstrating what the online threats are, and the Government are still working on the response to the Online Harms White Paper and the legislation to go with it. However, coronavirus has eaten into parliamentary time. Caroline Dinenage stated it was the Government’s intention for the legislation to be seen in this parliamentary session.
- Regulator: In the interim response, the Government stated that they are minded to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for this, as they have the capacity and scale to deal with such a huge piece of legislation. They will need to develop their technical expertise if they are appointed. Regulation will initially be Government funded but will work towards it being funded by business in the years going forward.
- Loot boxes: Julian Knight MP, Chair of the DCMS Committee, asked whether people need to wait for the review of the Gambling Act 2005 to see action on the control of loot boxes, or whether the Government will take action now through section 6 of the Gambling Act. Caroline Dinenage MP responded that they are taking the issues with loot boxes seriously, and they are working in the meantime (while the review takes place) on other initiatives, such as with PEGI on content descriptor labels. Also referenced industry led initiatives such as Sony, Nintendo etc. disclosing the relative probability of receiving randomised virtual loot boxes on future titles (to be implemented later this year).
- Anonymity: MPs also questioned the witnesses on the role of anonymous accounts in the online harms debate. Tim Loughton MP discussed the possibility of having to use ID to create an account for online platforms to prevent anonymous accounts/abuse from them. Caroline Dinenage responded by saying that the Government are considering this as an option, however, they also recognise the role of anonymous accounts for foreign whistleblowers.
- The role of the regulator: In February, the Government produced a list of 11 online harms which was designed to be an illustrative list of harms Criminal harms such as child sexual exploitation and terrorist content will have a code of practice for each one, as they are criminal acts. However, with other harms that are legal but harmful, the Government are not setting out to name the individual harms in legislation because they want the legislation to be agile, and to adapt to emerging technologies and platforms.The codes of practice will therefore not be around individual harms, but on systems and preferences. Companies will be expected to abide by the codes of practice on systems and preferences, and the regulator will be given the authority to impose sanctions when these are ignored.
The role of the regulator will be ongoing. They will be outlining their set of expectations, and the direction to be taken by the sector. There will also be a responsibility on the sector themselves to identify where they think the harms are and to set out their own standards and expectations, and a duty of care. Companies will be expected to have a robust complaints procedure/way to accelerate issues.
With individual companies setting out their own codes, the standardisation will come from the overarching expectations as set out by the regulator.
- Consequences of breaches: Ruth Jones MP asked whether there would be criminal sanctions for non-compliance or breaches of the duty of care. Baroness Williams noted that anything criminal offline is criminal online, so criminal behaviour would be subject to criminal sanctions. However, there is a grey area when you enter the ‘legal but harmful’ category of material. They are looking into penalties such as warnings and fines for repeat offenders (although Ruth Jones MP noted concerns that fines would not impact big tech companies). Caroline Dinenage discussed senior management liability as a possibility, as they have seen it ‘focus minds’ in other sectors, and they are working to understand how this could be effective in the tech sector.
- Judicial review: Caroline Dinenage MP noted that the Government are considering the role of judicial review in an instance where the regulator and the provider disagree on what is harmful content. Providers could use judicial review to appeal decisions by the regulator that they disagree with. Her inclination is that while the review is taking place, the disputed content would have to stay removed.
- Keeping track of emerging platforms: Caroline Dinenage noted that the online harms legislation puts the responsibility with the platforms to set out what their codes of practice are. This is to enable companies to adapt to emerging harms and to be adaptable. However, the regulator will be able to access emerging trends by scooping complaints on the same issue, and through horizon scanning.
The session can be watched in full here.
In addition to this, Caroline Dinenage MP responded to two written questions regarding online harms throughout the coronavirus period. In her answer, she stated that the estimate of the number of companies that will be in scope of the Online Harms framework is based on a sample of data from the Inter-Departmental Business Register (IDBR). Based on this sample, the Government believes that no more than 5% of UK businesses will be in scope of the Online Harms White Paper.
The written answers can be seen in full below:
Young People: Coronavirus
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
13 May 2020
Chris Elmore: To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what plans he is putting in place to keep young people safe online during the covid-19 outbreak.
Caroline Dinenage: The internet presents many benefits during this period. It can help young people stay connected and access educational resources. However this period may place some young people at greater risk of experiencing harm online.
On 23rd April, DCMS published new online safety advice on how to stay safe online during the Covid-19 outbreak, with a particular focus on supporting parents and carers to protect children.
The Government is firmly committed to making the UK the safest place to be online, and we are working at pace to introduce Online Harms legislation.
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
13 May 2020
Chi Onwurah: To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what methodology was used to estimate the number of companies affected by the proposals in the Online Harms White Paper.
Caroline Dinenage: The estimate of the number of companies that will be in scope of the Online Harms framework is based on a sample of data from the Inter-Departmental Business Register (IDBR). The IDBR is a comprehensive list of UK businesses used by the government for statistical purposes.
The sample was designed to ensure that it was sufficiently large and had sufficient representation of organisations of different sizes in order for the results to be robust. For each organisation in the sample, we reviewed whether it offers activities that may fall within the scope of the regulation, and on that basis do not believe that more than 5% of UK businesses will be in scope. We are continuing to work to ensure that new regulation will be proportionate and risk-based.