GPD’s thoughts on the UK’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper

8 Dec 2017

Yesterday, the public consultation on the UK government’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper closed. The green paper, published in October, included a number of proposed measures to “tackle online harms” and make Britain “the safest place in the world to be online”. The strategy was first promised by the Conservative Party during the general election in June, in a manifesto which was widely criticised for proposing to regulate internet service providers more heavily.

The strategy itself comprises a wide range of measures divided into five broad strands of work:

  1. The UK’s strategy: The current UK Child Council for Internet Safety (UKCCIS) is a network of over 200 organisations from across government, business, law, academia and civil society, which undertakes research and develops guidance on issues of children’s online safety. The green paper proposes expanding its remit to include all issues of online safety (as well as renaming it the UK Council for Internet Safety) and reforming its Executive Board. The green paper also proposes more joined-up work among government departments and greater international engagement.
  2. Working with industry: A range of measures are proposed in the strategy, including developing a code of practice for social media companies, requiring social media companies to publish annual transparency reports on internet safety, and possibly introducing a levy on social media companies to fund online safety initiatives.
  3. Supporting technology to improve online safety: The measures set out under this strand aim to support technical innovation which incorporates online safety considerations. They include supporting the recently established UKCCIS Technical Working Group (which looks at technical issues relating to online safety), producing guidelines encouraging companies to consider online safety when developing products, and leading a review into consumer internet-connected devices.
  4. Supporting children, parents and carers: The green paper proposes improving the quality of education relating to digital literacy and online safety at schools, improving the quality of advice and guidance to parents and carers, and encouraging internet service providers and industry to develop technological solutions to online harms.
  5. Responding to online harms: Finally, the green paper makes reference to existing and proposed work by government to respond to online harms such as prosecutions under relevant criminal legislation; improved responses to hate crimes by the police; and other existing government strategies on ending violence against women and girls, serious and organised crime, and cybersecurity.

Overall (subject to the caveats below) we find the strategy broadly sensible and measured, and consider that many of its proposals are likely to meet the aims of supporting a safe online environment and tackling online harms.

We are relieved that some of the more interventionist language that was used in the Conservative Party’s June manifesto does not appear in the green paper and that (at least here), the emphasis on legislative regulation seems to have given way to greater focus on working with industry and other partners in addressing the challenges outlined.

We do, however, have some concerns in relation to the green paper itself, both in relation to its scope and approach, and specific proposals. We articulated these concerns in our submission to the consultation, and summarise them below.

Scope and approach

The topic of “internet safety” is already a broad one. In spite of this, the green paper considers  issues which we judge to be unrelated to (or only tangentially related to) a person’s safety. We note, in particular, sections which look at “fake news” (pp. 47-48) and “individuals who use the internet to create a false identity or identities to form a romantic relationship, but without committing a criminal offence” (p. 54). While both phenomena may be legitimate public concerns, we do not consider that these are issues of “internet safety” requiring government intervention.

Further, the green paper includes proposals designed to address a wide range of different online harms, including bullying and harassment, access to age inappropriate content, hate speech, and breaches of privacy. These are all distinct public policy issues, requiring targeted and specific responses. Yet the green paper often considers them collectively, and fails to recognise the different considerations that each requires.  We would have preferred to see these issues considered separately, with responses that are both more carefully tailored and which address the issue holistically – including both offline and online dimensions – rather than solely focusing on their internet-related aspects.

Specific proposals

In relation to the proposal for a social media code of practice (p. 15), we accept that the Secretary of State has a legal obligation to develop specific guidances on appropriate action to be taken against bullying and other harmful behaviour under the Digital Economy Act 2017.

However, we remain unconvinced that such guidance is necessary in the first place, even if non-binding and voluntary, given that the UK Council for Child Internet Safety has already produced substantive and specific guidance on social media. Since new guidance is legally required, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety – which is comprised of field experts (and, according to this green paper, will enjoy an enlarged remit as the UK internet Safety Council) – should play a substantial in its development.

As such, we would propose a development process which involves the UK Council for Internet Safety reviewing its existing guidance and taking a lead in the drafting of any new, revised guidance which is ultimately issued by the Secretary of State.

We are also concerned by certain language around this proposed code of practice. While the green paper says that the code would be non-binding, it also refers in vague terms to a government review of the “existing regulatory framework”, which would “consider further steps that may be required to continue to develop and uphold a robust regulatory environment (…) including – if necessary – a sanctions regime to ensure compliance” (p. 14). We are concerned that a binding code of practice – with fines or other sanctions for failure to remove content – may incentivise the takedown of lawful content, presenting real risks to freedom of expression.

In relation to the proposal for a levy on social media companies and communication service providers (pp. 16-17), we consider that the proposal is premature. We have not yet seen any evidence that social media platforms are not currently sufficiently contributing towards tackling online harms, whether through financial support to other organisations, or through other actions. Further, while we acknowledge that, in theory, a social media levy could make a difference, the effectiveness of any such levy does not simply depend on its existence, but on a range of other factors – including how much would be generated, how the money raised would be spent and a comparison with the current work that is being done to tackle online harms. The green paper, however, does not provide details on any of these questions. Without any baseline or evidence base, it is not possible to determine the effectiveness of any proposals for a centralised social media levy. We would therefore recommend the development of such an evidence base – including a review of existing funding and resources – before the proposal is considered any further.

Next steps

The UK government will consider responses to the public consultation before announcing its final plans. The green paper is, however, only the starting point for government action; and further legislative or regulatory action may well result from the response to the consultation. In addition, the green paper is only the first strand of the government’s proposed Digital Charter, and further proposals on other aspects of that process may be put forward in the future. GPD will continue to follow all discussions relating to internet safety strategy, and the government’s broader work on the Digital Charter, and scrutinise further proposals.

For further information, contact Richard on richard@gp-digital.org.