By Lauren Fisher
Published December 2020

The Government's recently published Online Harms White Paper sets out its plans to introduce a new regulatory framework which will aim to reduce the prevalence of harmful content online. The UK will be the first to introduce a framework specifically for dealing with "online harms".

The problem:

The new legislation will aim to address the rising concern about the prevalence of illegal and harmful content online. Very serious illegal content is often far too accessible online, some of which may threaten national security or the safety of children. For example, terrorists have used online platforms to radicalise vulnerable individuals, and to broadcast attacks live.

It has been widely recognised that even online activity that is not illegal can be very damaging for mental health and wellbeing, particularly for vulnerable individuals and children. For this reason, the White Paper suggests that activity such as bullying and intimidation is likely to fall within the scope of the online harms legislation.

Aim of the new legislation:

Although a combination of regulatory and voluntary initiatives aimed at addressing the prevalence of this type of content already exists, it is widely accepted that this does not go far enough. The new legislation will aim to ensure a higher level of protection and improve the safety of UK citizens online, while taking into account the need to balance this with freedom of expression. It will do this by clearly setting out companies' duties and the steps that need to be taken to fulfil these.

Which companies will be affected?

Any company that allows users to interact with each other, share or discover user-generated content online will fall within the scope of the new legislation. This will include non-UK companies hosting content which is accessible to UK viewers. The White Paper suggests that although the measures will affect businesses of any size, the largest companies will be subject to the highest levels of responsibility.

Examples of the types of companies that may fall within the scope of the legislation include:

  • Social media companies;
  • Public discussion forums;
  • Messaging services;
  • Search engines;
  • File hosting sites.

However, it is important to note that there will be certain exceptions, such as for comment sections of news publishers, and review sections for products of small businesses.

How will these companies be affected?

The online harms legislation will establish a new statutory duty of care for companies, giving companies a certain level of responsibility over user safety. Compliance with this duty will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator.

Where companies breach this duty of care, they may be subject to substantial fines. It is also possible that liability may be imposed on individual members of companies' senior management. Therefore, it will be crucial for companies that fall within the scope of the new legislation to be clear about what their responsibilities are, and how to comply with these. Companies should seek advice if in doubt.

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