“Online Harms”

What is the issue?

The United Kingdom government has proposed law reforms to address online content and behaviour that harms individuals, particularly children. The proposed reforms would create a new legal obligation for companies “to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services” and establish an independent regulator with the power to enforce this obligation. The UK is the first liberal democracy to attempt such broad regulation of harmful online content and behaviour and these reforms are likely to set a precedent for how other countries regulate the internet.

What is the problem?

The definition of harm included in the proposals is incredibly broad. It includes currently illegal content and behvaiour, such as child sexual abuse material, terrorist content and online harrassment, alongside legal content and behaviour, such as disinformation, cyber-bullying and trolling. There is a risk that attempts to address all of these forms of harmful behaviour, many of which do not have clear definitions, will restrict freedom of expression of users of online services, including children. The monitoring by online companies that would be necessary to prevent these types of content and behaviour could also be very invasive, infringing internet users’ privacy. There is a difficult balance to be struck between protecting children and ensuring that all of their rights are fully realised online.

What is the solution?

States have a duty to safeguard children against harmful content and abuse online, but not at the expense of their rights to freedom of expression, privacy and to access information. Any limitations on these rights must lawful, necessary and proportionate. Greater transparency is essential to empower users of online services and to hold online companies responsible for their impact on children’s rights. To be effective, regulation of online companies must also be met with digital literacy programmes for all children from an early age to empower them to realise their rights online and to protect themselves from the risks that confront them. 

What is CRIN doing?

CRIN has been working with partners working on child protection, children’s rights, freedom of expression and within a broader human rights perspective in response to the White Paper. We co-hosted a series of roundtables during the consultation period to identify how to protect human rights within the proposals and published our joint recommendation on how to do so. CRIN also made an individual response to the consultation.