This post originally appeared in the UK newspaper City A.M. on 15 April 2021
In the recently published Integrated Review, a detailed policy document setting out the UK’s national security and international policies, the government identifies online harms as one of the most serious threats to our way of life.
The report highlights the government’s commitment to ‘promote a free, open, peaceful and secure cyberspace’.
However, it does not reflect the amount of time people currently spend online, not does it offers any solutions to the problems and issues it analyses, an online harms campaigner told City A.M.
According to Tom Ascott, policy manager at the London-based Online Harms Foundation, the review stops short of detailing how the government plans to tackle a number of fundamental issues.
“We don’t want a situation where the internet is being blamed for criminal activity. Internet platforms shouldn’t be solely held responsible for this. Tech is part of the solution. But they are not a scapegoat for better laws,” he said.
“Yes, the government has taken a step in the right direction by understanding that state censorship of our online space is not the solution that anyone is after.”
However, “the online safety bill risks being as broad as an ocean and as shallow as a puddle. We’ve got to focus on clear examples of extremely harmful content before we cast a wider net. Where the bill has a focus of process, the government has shown the ability to ability to get stuck in the weeds with the legislation” Ascott shared.
“The vast majority of extremely harmful and illegal activity does not take place on big platforms. The Online Safety Bill is likely to carve out different tiers of platforms, as suggested by the White Paper.”
However, “it is unfortunate then that the language the government has used of ‘appropriate protections against online harms’ is not clear enough, it isn’t a meaningful solution” he added.
Online harms, as a whole, challenge the way that we as a society think about certain key issues. This can be as broad as our understanding of democracy, but they can also be much more narrow and therefore personal, according to Ascott.
“British citizens are increasingly toxic in the way they communicate online. A lot of this is harmful behaviour by people up and down the country. Friends and family are subject to this kind of abuse, and worryingly, they can be part of perpetuating it. Society needs to take a deep hard look at itself. These are issues deep in society,” he explained.
Freedom of speech becomes increasingly complicated when a more holistic, global view is taken. There are clear ambitions that this is to become a foreign policy objective, with a focus on developing countries.
“While there may be vows to ‘tackle online violence, directed against women and girls, a clearer understanding is needed of how the government intends to do this. Societal issues are hard to solve, and those solutions are even harder to export,” Ascott noted.
“The wider issue is there are criminals who are online, and they are not being held to account. Deleting their content won’t change their underlining behaviour, we have to police that behaviour online and offline, too.”
“Government capability in terms of monitoring the internet is limited, and we have seen with the spread of misinformation online what happens if we simply open the floodgates,” he said.
According to Ascott, what is needed is not “the flowery language of defending democracy” but the detail oriented, and often dull, legalese of regulation.
“It is by having a rigorous framework that the UK will have an idea that it can export, and the government will have a considerable job on their hands to whip the forthcoming Online Safety Bill into a position where it can be the flagship internationally that it desires it to be,” he stressed.
“What developing countries need from the UK is the same thing that UK companies need from it: detail. It is detail that drives certainty and stability.”
“The UK must set norms at the international level” he went to add, “or else risk losing control of the internet. The internet will be fragmented, and it will undermine the prosperity of Britain because of that.”
In fact, Ascott believes the UK has an opportunity to be a world leader in the area of online harms.
“But ‘systems and processes’ is a phrase that could hold a multitude of regulations.”
Rules and regulation
If the government does indeed want to implement its ‘far beyond self-regulation’ policy in the tech sector, Ascott argued serious and mature regulation is needed.
For example, companies may be required to set out standards for what legal material is and what content is not acceptable on their platforms and services.
“Companies are often not able to enforce their terms and conditions consistently and transparently, as the government wishes they would, because they are under huge amounts of public scrutiny and pressure,” he said.
“By clearly identifying what is and is not legal when it comes to online harms will give companies the ability to act consistently, we know what offline harms are in our day to day lives, we need that clarity online as well” Ascott added.
Moreover, he thinks the government “must do better” than offering vague solutions such as ‘media literacy strategy’.
“Media literacy is not a magic bullet. By incorporating it into the curriculum it does nothing to help older citizens – or those without access to traditional, curriculum- based education -who are still vulnerable to online harms,” Ascott argued.
Finally, he also stressed that the government cannot continue to leave women or BAME citizens “on the fringe of technology policy,” as Ascott put it.
“While some commentators might think that this is simply a social policy that is not true. A more diverse internet is a stronger internet,” he concluded.