Social media firms to have duty of care to users

Government announces plans in Online Harms White Paper

Published on 16th April 2019

Social media firms must abide by a mandatory “duty of care” to protect users and could face heavy fines if they fail to deliver, under new government proposals.

The government has launched the Online Harms White Paper which sets out its plans for a 'world-leading package' of measures to keep UK users safe online. 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.

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 we are consulting on powers to issue substantial fines, block access to sites and potentially to impose liability on individual members of senior management.

Prime Minister Theresa May said: "The internet can be brilliant at connecting people across the world - but for too long these companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content.

"That is not good enough, and it is time to do things differently. We have listened to campaigners and parents, and are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe.

"Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms, and help restore public trust in this technology," Mrs May added.

The Online Harms White Paper sets out the government’s plans for online safety measures that also supports innovation and a thriving digital economy.

Inciting violence and violent content, encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyber bullying and children accessing inappropriate material will be tackled as part of the Online Harms White Paper.

There will be stringent requirements for companies to take even tougher action to ensure they tackle terrorist and child sexual exploitation and abuse content.

The new proposed laws will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online. This means a wide range of companies of all sizes are in scope, including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services, and search engines.

Further measures in the White Paper include ensuring companies respond to users’ complaints, and act to address them quickly and will introduce 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 will be introduced to help companies incorporate online safety features in new apps and platforms from the start and a media literacy strategy will be produced to equip people with the knowledge to recognise and deal with a range of deceptive and malicious behaviours online, including catfishing, grooming and extremism.

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," he added.

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.

The government is urging responses to the open public consultation from organisations, companies and others with relevant views, insights or evidence. It closes at 23:59, 1 July 2019.

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