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On 8 April 2019, the UK government launched its Online Harms White Paper setting out proposals for regulation of “online harms”; i.e., content or activity which harms individual users of online services (in particular, children), undermines security, or what is described as “our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration”. The White Paper seeks feedback in respect of its proposals and asks for responses to 18 specific questions about how its proposals should be implemented.

Authors: Carolyn E. Pepper Jonathan J. Andrews Nicolle Odutoye

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What does the White Paper propose?

The White Paper proposes a new statutory duty of care to deal with online harms. The new duty is to be governed by a new regulatory framework and overseen by an independent regulator.

Who will be regulated?

Although the full range of companies the rules will apply to has not yet been defined, the range of companies to whom the rules will apply is likely to be wide. The White Paper says that the new framework is intended to apply to companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or to interact with each other online, including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines, SMEs, start ups and other organisations such as charities. The White Paper acknowledges that this encapsulates a broad range of business types, and therefore that a “risk based and proportionate approach” is to be taken. The initial focus will be on the companies which the government believes pose the biggest risk of harm to users, either because of the scale of the platforms or because of known issues with serious harms. It appears that the intention is that the duty of care will reflect the diversity of organisations in scope, their capacities, and what is technically possible in terms of proactive measures. The government says that it will minimise excessive burdens according to the size and resources of organisations, but that all companies must take reasonable and proportionate action to tackle harms on their services.