Our children need more than patchwork protection online. I have long called for the establishment of a new stand-alone internet regulator with the power to fine tech companies that fail in their duty of care to children. I also believe that the public should be empowered with a Charter of Digital Rights.
In April 2019, the Government published its Online Harms White Paper, which committed to establishing a new statutory duty of care on companies towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator. The duty of care will ensure that companies have appropriate systems and processes in place to deal with harmful content on their services. The Government has emphasised that the regulator will have powers to take effective enforcement action against companies which have breached their statutory duty of care.
The Queen’s Speech in December 2019 committed to introduce legislation to “improve internet safety for all.” The Government outlined that it will prepare legislation. Ahead of this legislation, it has committed to publishing interim codes of practice on tackling the use of the internet by terrorists and those engaged in child sexual abuse and exploitation.
In February 2020, the Government published its initial consultation response which set out that it is “minded to appoint Ofcom as the online harms regulator.” It has committed to publish a full response in the spring.
I am concerned that, although the initial consultation response is a modest step in the right direction, it is overdue and ineffective. I believe that more information is needed on what powers Ofcom will have to hold social media companies to account and what exactly it will consider to be an “online harm”.
Children and vulnerable adults need swift action now. I would like to see a new independent regulator established, but the first priority should be to enshrine the duty of care in law as soon as possible. Nothing short of legislation will reassure families that their loved ones are safe online.
I assure you that I will continue to monitor developments closely – this is a matter that demands cross-party, non-partisan collaboration.