The Government have committed to making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and to play video games. A full Government response outlining the ways they will tackle online harms is expected in the final months of 2020, and legislation is expected to follow suit in early 2021. The new legislation will expect online providers, including games businesses, to establish a duty of care towards players and especially children. This duty of care will be regulated by an independent regulator.

 

Timeline

  • The Government published an Online Harms White Paper setting out their plans for a package of online safety measures and announcing a consultation with stakeholders on its contents. The consultation began on 8 April 2019 and closed on 1 July 2019.
  • The Government published their initial consultation response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation on 12 February 2020. In their response, they granted further powers to Ofcom to regulate the social media world.
  • The Government announced a call for evidence on the impact of loot boxes in video games, to examine concerns they may encourage or lead to problem gambling. The call for evidence is due to close on 22 November 2020.
  • We are currently awaiting the full Government response to the Online Harms White Paper, expected before the end of 2020. We are also expecting the corresponding legislation in early 2021.

What we know so far

  • The Role of the Regulator: The Government have not confirmed who is to be appointed as the Online Harms regulator in the new legislation, however there is a very strong likelihood that this role will be handed to Ofcom.
    • The new legislation will ensure that anything that is illegal in real life will also be illegal online. Criminal harms such as child sexual exploitation and terrorist content will be directly addressed in the legislation and will come with a code of practice that companies must abide by to address these harms.
    • Harms that are not illegal, but considered harmful, will not be directly addressed in legislation in the same way. The Government has stated that this is to allow the legislation to be agile, and to be able to adapt to emerging harms in the online space. The codes of practice for ‘legal but harmful’ content will therefore not pin-point individual harms, but highlight 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 Government’s approach will require companies to have clear and accessible mechanisms for users to report harmful content and to challenge it, or take it down where necessary.
  • Age Assurance and Age Verification: The Government will expect companies to have a range of tools to protect children, including measures such as age assurance and age verification technologies. There is collaboration across various Government departments including the Home Office and GCHQ on research into the verification of children online, and considering the technical challenges of knowing who a child is online. The Government ran a successful technical trial to test the use of age-assurance technologies at scale and are working in more detail on this.
  • Loot boxes: The Government are currently reviewing the 2005 Gambling Act, due to concerns that the Act does not deal with the increasing complexities of online gambling. In the meantime, the Government are evaluating the use of loot boxes in games and the potential harms that arise with the use of loot boxes. The Government are currently consulting on loot boxes in video games and the call for evidence can be read in full here. The consultation will close on 22 November 2020, and will be used to inform the Government’s approach to loot boxes in the legislation which will be put forward in early 2021.