5Rights welcomes Online Harms White Paper, calls for swifter legislation

The Government today published its Online Harms White Paper  which sets out its proposals to introduce ‘a new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies’. Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright MP 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.’

The 5Rights Foundation has welcomed the publication of the White Paper, noting in particular that the Government has chosen to pursue a number of the recommendations 5Rights made in our report Towards an Internet Safety Strategy, including:

  • ‘A new statutory duty of care to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users’ (as put forward by Professor Lorna Woods and William Perrin on behalf of the Carnegie UK Trust);
  • Regulatory oversight and enforcement of online services’ published rules, including a requirement for all terms and conditions to be clear and accessible to children;
  • An independent regulator with ‘powers to issue substantial fines and to impose liability on individual members of senior management.

However, 5Rights has also expressed concern at the timeline for introducing these proposals, many of which are already too late in coming. 5Rights Chair Baroness Kidron commented:

‘The issues are so serious and the failure of the tech sector to self-regulate so profound that it is incumbent on government to fast track legislation. I welcome the duty of care, I welcome enforceable terms and conditions - which 5Rights has spent years campaigning for - and I welcome stronger powers to sanction by an independent regulator. But we need all of it swiftly, robustly and uncompromisingly.

‘The real litmus test for this White Paper is whether it results in effective and enforceable legislation, sooner rather than later.’

5Rights also shares the concern of many others that the Government has not challenged the technology sector over its use of features and techniques that nudge children into activities that are either harmful or habit-forming. Recent concerns about addictive loops of behaviour on gaming, social media, and video-sharing platforms have been voiced by the Chief Medical Officer, the NHS, and many civil society groups that work directly with children. Indeed, the White Paper refers to our own report, Disrupted Childhood, which provides an evidence base for the impact of ‘persuasive design’ on children’s safety and wellbeing. 

Despite this, these more ‘everyday’ harms - a direct result of the sector’s commercial interest in excessive data collection and surveillance - are overlooked for specific intervention in the White Paper. This represents a clear failure by the Government to exercise its own duty of care to children, and we will be raising it in our response to the consultation.

Finally, 5Rights welcomed the Government’s commitment to the Age Appropriate Design Code, due to be published for consultation by the Information Commissioner this month. Having been closely involved with both the creation of the Code and its progress to date, 5Rights will work with our colleagues and friends in responding to the consultation when it is launched.