Media event: ‘Online, Video Sharing and Broadcasting Harms: The Way Forward?’

Following consultation on the Government’s radical plans to reduce harm online in its Online Harms White Paper, an expert panel assembled at SM&B to discuss ‘Online, Video Sharing and Broadcasting Harms: The Way Forward?’

On the panel were Daniel Dyball, UK Executive Director at the Internet Association, Diana Izzard, Head Lawyer for Commercial Compliance at Channel 4, Dr Martin Moore, Director of the Centre of the Study of Media, Communications and Power at King’s College, London, and Geraldine Bedell, Director at Parentzone. Head of Media: Content and Disputes Louis Charalambous hosted the event, with Consultant Trevor Barnes chairing the discussion.

Discussion focused around the government’s proposed statutory duty of care on “relevant companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services”. An open-ended list of harms would fall within scope varying from the currently illegal (child sexual exploitation and abuse), to the more nebulous (violent content). The duty would be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator, with the power to impose monetary penalties.

Geraldine thought that the White Paper was a “great start” in addressing the imbalance of power between the tech companies and the general public. However, she noted that it raised almost as many questions as it answered and that some of the harms within the scope of the Paper were very subjective (for instance, “trolling” or “disinformation”). Furthermore, there was a lack of focus on digital resilience and how young people can be helped to cope.

Opinion in the room differed on the value of digital education, with some arguing that it was a crucial part of reducing harm online, while others viewed it as a waste of time.

Daniel indicated that tech companies (The IA’s members include Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google) were broadly supportive of the White Paper and had already taken steps to address some of the harms previously raised, for instance, millions spent in recent years building up content regulation teams and the attendant technology. “They already do a lot and would like to do more”.

However, in his view the White Paper has particular problems. The definition of the statutory duty of care could potentially capture the whole of the internet. There was also the number and scope of the harms included (over 20 at present), with the possibility of more being added. There was concern that over time the duty may simply collapse into a de facto general monitoring duty, with overtones of “The Great Firewall of China”.

The extent of the proposed duty of care was at the heart of the discussion. Diana Izzard was of the view that the duty proposed a similar regulatory burden to that a commercial broadcaster like Channel 4 currently faces and that a beefed-up version of a regulator like Ofcom may be well placed to administer the proposed duty.

Dr Moore welcomed the fact that the Paper moved the debate on from the stale discussion of whether large tech companies should be considered ‘publishers’. Instead, it alludes to the correct analogy, namely that of “public spaces” that are privately owned, for instance, a park or a football stadium, but where the landowner nonetheless has a duty of care to those visiting.

However, there are still had significant problems. The harms in scope are not properly defined. For instance, ‘Online Manipulation’ could possibly cover all online advertising. The Paper is ultimately symptomatic of ‘Lord of the Rings’ thinking in that it wants there to be “one law to rule them all”. This is a mistake and fails to address the problem of domination of the web by a few companies and the effect of transnational capitalism.

Dr Moore suggested that the ambition of the paper should be scaled back. There should be a focus on process rather than content, with the job of the regulator being to ensure companies have efficient processes in place to remove harmful content and that the focus should be on the biggest platforms.

The panel were generally receptive to the idea of a process-focused regulator. It was noted that the job of content moderators is difficult, and that it is difficult to assess the impact of the work of a regulator, even if process rather than content focused. Several panellists noted the importance of transparency for whatever system is introduced.

However, points from the floor suggested that instead of the dominant tech companies, there should be a focus on the content of small, extremely harmful ISPs, which should possibly be subjected to geo-blocking.

Finally, there was criticism of the emphasis on enforcement through monetary penalties. Dr Moore noted that this reflected the limited leverage of national governments on the issue, which was likely to lead to the levying of increasingly large fines on companies, despite their dubious efficacy. The likely end result would be tech companies considering whether to withdraw service from the UK, which consumers would likely be unhappy with.

The consensus appeared to be that this was a significant contribution to the future of internet regulation, which will hopefully generate much-needed discussion when or if normal political service resumes.