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Digital Business Lawyer

DCMS consults on Internet Safety Strategy green paper

The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (‘DCMS’) launched a consultation on its ‘Internet Safety Strategy green paper’ (‘Green Paper’) on 11 October 2017, setting out a number of voluntary objectives and initiatives for digital companies and Government to adopt in order to ‘ensure Britain is the safest place in the world to be online.’ The Green Paper considers the responsibilities of online companies to their users, and the use of technical solutions to prevent online harms, and proposes amongst other things the introduction of a social media levy, a social media code of practice, and annual internet safety transparency reporting requirements.

The introduction of a social media code of practice is required by the Digital Economy Act 2017, and is described in the Green Paper as a first step to working more closely with the technology industry to develop a framework on online safety that provides a more consistent approach to safety across the internet, shares best practice and sets expectations on how companies should go about protecting their users from abusive behaviour and harmful online content. “The Green Paper is long on ambition, but short on detail,” said Sue McLean, Partner at Baker McKenzie. “It is not yet clear, for example, what the proposed social media code of practice would cover, which companies would be subject to the proposed ‘voluntary’ levy (which some have dubbed a ‘troll tax’), how much it would be and what exactly it would be used for.”

The Green Paper states that all companies should be involved in improving the online safety of their users and that despite some companies already investing heavily in this regard, more needs to be done, which is the reason for introducing a levy to help Government combat such online harms. The Green Paper also focuses on encouraging the promotion of online safety and education, and actively encourages industry to develop ‘technologies, including linguistics filters and artificial intelligence […] to make a considerable difference to the safety of online communities.’ The Green Paper also promotes the concept of ‘safety by design,’ which Marcus Clayden, Associate at Burges Salmon, believes is “clearly analogous to the requirement for ‘privacy by design’ under the GDPR. Such initiatives do require a cultural shift in order to be effective - app or web developers, for example, must address these safety considerations at the outset of the design and then build processes rather than trying to bolt solutions on at a later stage.” McLean states that “the focus understandably tends to be on educating children, but I would like to see increased focus on how we educate adults on digital citizenship. Prevention has got to be better than cure - when it comes to abusive and harmful content online, there needs to be a drive to continue to educate all users on what is and is not acceptable.”

“I expect tech companies will be heartened by the fact that the Government appears to have tempered its approach from some of the rhetoric about ‘regulating the internet’ we have seen in recent months,” concludes McLean. “In the Green Paper, the emphasis is on consultation, collaboration and partnership and a voluntary, self-regulatory approach (although there is a suggestion of legislation if the voluntary approach doesn’t work). Some will argue that this ‘softening’ is more down to the Government’s narrow majority than anything else, but whatever the driver, the change in tone will be welcomed.”

The consultation period closes on 7 December 2017.

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