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Lords express frustration at delayed action against online harms

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At a virtual meeting of the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies committee today, peers questioned ministers about progress made on legislation to tackle online harms and expressed concern that it could be several years until measures are enshrined in law.

Last year, the government published a highly anticipated White Paper which laid out its intention to force online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to uphold a duty of care to its users, such as by removing harmful content (terrorist propaganda; pro-suicide material; child abuse images etc) in a timely manner and with the oversight of an independent internet regulator.

More than a year later, there are concerns about progress, particularly given the disruption to parliamentary procedures and timetables caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The NSPCC and other groups campaigning in favour of the statutory duty of care laws warned recently that the introduction of these laws could be delayed by 18 months – i.e. pushed back to 2023 – potentially giving tech giants generous opportunities to lobby against stricter measures.

Liberal Democrat Peer Lord German cited the NSPCC’s estimate and called for clarity on how the online harms legislation would proceed in the coming months, asking specifically when the government plans to publish a formal response to the White Paper and introduce a bill to Parliament.

Caroline Dineage, a minister of state in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), refused to commit to a timetable, but said she hoped to see a response to the White Paper in the summer, which could include some of the recent lessons learned from handling of online threats related to the coronavirus crisis, such as health misinformation.

“We do want to get this done as quickly as possible,” she said. “There is no relaxation of our emphasis on delivering this massive government priority, but as ever we have to get it right. It has to be right for business, it has to be right for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but it also has to protect the most vulnerable.”

Crossbench peer Baroness Kidron and Labour peer Lord Harris were among those who expressed concern about the government’s apparent lack of urgency, particularly given the UK’s suddenly increased dependence on digital technologies amid the Covid-19 lockdown.

“This is the point at which people who have an agenda or undermining our democracy are seeing huge opportunities to play games and this is why this is really, really urgent,” said Lord Harris. “You say this is important and you want to get it right, but I don’t sense that degree of urgency that these unprecedented challenges are unprecedented threats in terms of online harm and threats to our democracy.”

Labour peer Baroness Morris questioned how the drawn-out process of drafting, scrutinising and approving legislation could be made fit for responding to threats in fast-moving digital spaces.

“To be honest, by the time our government system has found space for the legislation, the problem won’t be the problem that the legislation is trying to deal with, she said.

This area moves so quickly that it will have moved on and we’ll be solving a problem that was two years ago […] it’s a cultural difference between the way the digital world is moving and the way government is moving.”

Dineage responded that the government is taking a principle-based, platform-neutral approach to preparing this legislation.

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