UK to introduce world first online safety laws
Date published: 15 April 2019
New laws must be introduced to clamp down on ‘Wild West Web'
Following calls from children’s charities to tame the ‘Wild West Web’, with 88% of adults in the North West backing social network regulation, over 42,000 have taken action by signing The NSPCC petition, calling for statutory regulation so that social networks have a legal duty of care to protect every child.
Barnardo’s have also been campaigning as they revealed more than half of 12-year-olds have posted live videos on apps and websites meant for older children and adults.
Now, in the first online safety laws of their kind, social media companies and tech firms will be legally required to protect their users and face tough penalties if they do not comply.
As part of the Online Harms White Paper, a joint proposal from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office, a new independent regulator will be introduced to ensure companies meet their responsibilities.
This will include a mandatory ‘duty of care’, which will require companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services. The regulator will have effective enforcement tools, and the Government is consulting on powers to issue substantial fines, block access to sites and potentially to impose liability on individual members of senior management.
Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said: “The era of self-regulation for online companies is over.
“Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough. Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However, those that fail to do this will face tough action.
“We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business and our proposals for new laws will help make sure everyone in our country can enjoy the internet safely.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The tech giants and social media companies have a moral duty to protect the young people they profit from.
“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism - is still too readily available online.
“That is why we are forcing these firms to clean up their act once and for all. I made it my mission to protect our young people – and we are now delivering on that promise.
“A regulator will be appointed to enforce the new framework. The Government is now consulting on whether the regulator should be a new or existing body. The regulator will be funded by industry in the medium term, and the Government is exploring options such as an industry levy to put it on a sustainable footing.
“A 12-week consultation on the proposals has also been launched today. Once this concludes we will then set out the action we will take in developing our final proposals for legislation.”
Tough new measures set out in the White Paper include:
- A new statutory ‘duty of care’ to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services.
- Further stringent requirements on tech companies to ensure child abuse and terrorist content is not disseminated online.
- Giving a regulator the power to force social media platforms and others to publish annual transparency reports on the amount of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to address this.
- Making companies respond to users’ complaints, and act to address them quickly.
- Codes of practice, issued by the regulator, which could include measures such as requirements to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation with dedicated fact checkers, particularly during election periods.
- A new “Safety by Design” framework to help companies incorporate online safety features in new apps and platforms from the start.
- A media literacy strategy to equip people with the knowledge to recognise and deal with a range of deceptive and malicious behaviours online, including catfishing, grooming and extremism.
- The UK remains committed to a free, open and secure Internet. The regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to innovation, and to protect users’ rights online, being particularly mindful to not infringe privacy and freedom of expression.
NSPCC CEO Peter Wanless said: “This is a hugely significant commitment by the Government that once enacted, can make the UK a world pioneer in protecting children online.
“For too long social networks have failed to prioritise children’s safety and left them exposed to grooming, abuse, and harmful content. So it’s high time they were forced to act through this legally binding duty to protect children, backed up with hefty punishments if they fail to do so.
“We are pleased that the Government has listened to the NSPCC’s detailed proposals and we are grateful to all those who supported our campaign.
“Recognising that the Internet can be a tremendous force for good, and that technology will be an integral part of any solution, the new plans have been designed to promote a culture of continuous improvement among companies. The new regime will ensure that online firms are incentivised to develop and share new technological solutions, like Google’s “Family Link” and Apple’s Screen Time app, rather than just complying with minimum requirements. Government has balanced the clear need for tough regulation with its ambition for the UK to be the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business, and the new regulatory framework will provide strong protection for our citizens while driving innovation by not placing an impossible burden on smaller companies.
Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan said: “Children in the UK are facing growing risks online - from cyber-bullying to sexual grooming to gaming addiction.
“The internet can be a force for good but we can’t ignore the risks. Two thirds of the vulnerable children and young people supported through our sexual exploitation services were groomed online before meeting their abuser in person.
“Barnardo’s has long called for new laws to protect children online, just as we do offline, so they can learn, play and communicate safely.
“The Government’s announcement today is a very important step in the right direction. We particularly welcome proposals for a new independent regulator, which should ensure internet bosses make the UK one of the safest places in the world for children to be online.
Alex Holmes, Deputy CEO at The Diana Award said: “The Diana Award welcomes today’s Online Harms White Paper. We understand the powerful and influential role that the internet plays in the lives of young people and that’s why we are dedicated to training Anti-Bullying Ambassadors in schools across the UK to keep themselves and their peers safe online.
“We believe that the time is right for further innovation from the tech sector when it comes to their approach to safety. While their products are constantly evolving and innovating, there is room for innovation on their approach to safeguarding.
“We look forward to continuing to work with industry, government and other organisations to help children and young people in particular, manage risks and reduce harms.”
Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet said: “We look forward to this opportunity to help shape a better and safer environment for children and to continue and grow our current work to equip them with the information and skills they need to navigate the internet positively and safely. As we speak to thousands of children, parents, teachers and other professionals each year, we want to mobilise and support them to be part of the solution.
“We know that young people have strong ideas and opinions on online safety and it is their experiences we hope to reflect when responding to this consultation.”
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