Tackling online harms to our democracy must be a priority 

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 20th October 2020

Last week, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee criticised the government for its repeated delays in publishing legislation to tackle online harms. In a statement calling for urgent action, committee chair Julian Knight criticised the government’s lack of progress in legislating against online harms as ‘unjustifiable.’

In its response to the committee’s report on Misinformation in the COVID-19 infodemic, the government acknowledged the importance of introducing a new regulatory regime to protect users and adapt to new challenges online. But, while committing to publishing its response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation later this year, the government confirmed that legislation would not be forthcoming and that we should not expect a bill until early 2021. They also failed to provide further details on how the online harms regime will work, including importantly which regulator would be tasked with the crucial role of enforcing it.

A potential delay had already been mooted earlier this summer, with Lord Puttnam, chair of the House of Lords committee Democracy and Digital Technologies, saying that the bill may not come into effect until 2023 or 2024, which would be seven years from conception and which he noted is ‘two lifetimes’ in the world of technology. Lord Puttnam was speaking following the publication of a report by his committee on restoring trust in the online world, many of whose recommendations are in line with what we have been calling for at the ERS, including rationalising electoral law, requiring campaigners to return more meaningful spending returns, and increasing the Electoral Commission’s powers and resources.

Indeed, as Lord Puttnam mentioned, progress on the online harms policy has been extremely slow from the offset. First mooted in the 2017 ‘Internet Safety Strategy’ green paper, the Online Harms white paper was only published in April 2019. The white paper set out the online harms regime’s main aim – to make the UK the ‘safest place in the world to be online’ and impose a new statutory duty of care on tech companies, making them responsible for users’ safety online and tackling harm caused by content or activity on their services. This regime would be overseen and enforced by a new regulator, with the government announcing in February 2020 of its intention to appoint Ofcom as online harms regulator.

While demonstrating the government’s commitment to tackling serious issues such as cyber-bullying and terrorism, the white paper makes scant references to online harms to our democracy (focusing primarily on limited steps to tackle disinformation), particularly in relation to the completely unregulated online political space, as I’ve highlighted before. The limited attention paid to democratic harms, combined with the continued legislative delays, would seem to suggest that these issues are not being granted the urgency they deserve.

The delays we’re seeing are similar to the ones we’ve witnessed regarding commitments on extending imprints to online election material. Following an initial consultation in 2018, the government committed to implementing an imprints regime in May 2019 and, despite reaffirming this commitment, has done little more than launching yet another consultation on the technical details of the proposals. While gathering public and expert input into legislation is commendable, it cannot be used as an excuse for inaction, especially since policies which will have a negative effect on voters and for which there is widespread concern (such as requiring identification in order to vote) are being pushed through with barely any external input or consultation.

While it is understandable that the coronavirus has affected the legislative timetable, such considerable delays and cherry-picking legislation are woefully inadequate, particularly in light of continued threats to our democratic processes by purveyors of mis- and disinformation on social media. With many high-profile electoral events due to take place across the UK in 2021, the government cannot delay on these issues any longer if it is to be taken seriously on its claims to want to protect the integrity of our democratic system.

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