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Response to Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper signals movement

techUK’s Senior Policy Manager Ben Bradley analyses the Government’s newly published response to the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper and looks at what next

Matt Hancock and Margot James had a busy Sunday touring the TV and radio studios to plug what is essentially a Government response to its own Green Paper. That may sound a little odd, but the Internet Safety Strategy, one of the pillars of the Government’s Digital Charter, is an issue that politicians believe has real resonance with the public.

The response outlines steps the Government could take to help achieve its stated aim for the UK to be the safest place to be online. It tackles issues such as a Code of Practice for social media companies, transparency reporting, online advertising, and limitations to liability.

The Draft Social Media Code of Practice tackling abusive content online:

The proposed statutory code of practice would provide guidance to social media providers on appropriate reporting mechanisms and moderation processes to tackle abusive content. By setting out clear standards for industry, the government wants to make sure there is improved support for users online, and that more companies are taking consistent action to tackle abuse.

Tackling online harms is a key priority for technology companies. The major social media platforms are investing heavily in people, processes and new technology to tackle the misuse of their platforms. The response recognises that that these companies are working constructively with Government. Significant volumes of harmful and illegal content are now identified and removed before they have been viewed or accessed online.  No-one believes that is it is a case of job done and there is real commitment to building on progress.

The Code of Practice must be careful not to hinder these existing efforts, enabled under self-regulatory regimes. A principles-based framework, that allows companies to innovate in how to meet their obligations, will be the most effective method in achieving the Government’s aims.

The Government’s has indicated its commitment not to be overly prescriptive about how companies meet their obligations under the code. techUK has made clear its view that this approach should be maintained.

The work of social media platforms should not take place in a vacuum. Any technical solutions by companies to enforce the Code of Practice should be supported by wider efforts to reduce the amount of harmful content being posted, including the better coordination of action in schools to build digital resilience. Enforcement officials also need to have the guidance and training necessary to be able to respond to crimes committed online. The notion that the online and offline world is covered by different rules helps no-one. 

The Draft Transparency Report:

The largest social media companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have all published transparency reports over recent months. While the biggest companies have the staff and tools to meet these requirements, the transparency report may place a significant compliance burden on some of the smallest social media sites.

The Government response suggests that any company with more than 250,000 users in the UK will be required to sign up to the Code of Practice and produce a transparency report. Compared to a traditional business where a similar number of customers would be significant, a social media platform of that size is likely to be small with much more limited resources. A careful balance therefore needs to be struck to ensure that the regulatory requirements imposed on small new entrants does not become a barrier either to market entry or to the ability to scale. Doing so would risk entrenching the position of incumbents and inhibit innovation.

In developing the Transparency Report we would urge the Government to think about the metrics to be used. It is essential that they provide an effective mechanism for true reflection of the progress being made in tackling harmful content. For example, action by sites to reduce harmful content and make users more aware of the tools and redress options available to them may well lead to an increase in the number of flagged videos. Under the report this rise in flagged reports could be misinterpreted as a negative development unless there is a clear understanding of the reasons behind it. Establishing strong metrics that provide an accurate picture of progress will be key to building confidence in the value of these reports.

The review of online advertising and social media levy:

Amidst high profile political campaigns and revelations such as Cambridge Analytica there is much debate about the implications of digital innovation, such as targeted advertising, on individuals and society. It is right we have this debate, but any changes or new regulation should be based on informed debate, acknowledging both the challenges and opportunities posed by these new technologies.

The importance of online advertising to the internet cannot be understated; it is the backbone that has enabled the provision of countless free to use services from search engines to video hosting, that we all rely on day-to-day, and provide a huge consumer surplus.

This is why the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is critical. We look forward to working closely with the Centre as it looks at these kinds of issues so we can get them right, and not harm the ecosystem that supports thousands of online platforms and content creators across the UK. techUK has been a strong advocate of the need to build centers of expertise with the capability and capacity to drive practical progress on these issues. The UK can and should seek to be at the forefront of answering some of the most challenging questions that will define the digital age.

The Government’s acknowledgement of the industry’s wide range of work to tackle online harms and the difficulty of reallocating resources without disturbing the status quo is welcome. It is clear from the Green Paper’s responses few people think a centralised social media levy is the most effective way to tackle online harms. The industry is committed to continued engagement with the Government in upcoming roundtables to help develop a proportionate solution that supports existing initiatives while helping reduce duplication of efforts.

Next steps:

While Hancock has repeatedly committed to legislation over the past few days, what this legislation will target is still far from clear. Rather than starting with legislation as a starting point we should consider what the fastest, most targeted and effective way to tackle harmful content is.

Undefined legislation, which is “a couple of years” away according to Hancock, is unlikely to be the most effective or fastest solution. Instead we should focus on how we can change the existing framework right now to make the system as effective as can be.

Industry will continue to invest and innovate to protect users online, but there is more that can be done to support this work. When reviewing flagged content one of the biggest challenges companies face in removing harmful content online is making decisions where there is a lack of legal definition.

One reason industry action on child abuse imagery has been so effective is not just because of the moral and legal obligations on companies, but because of it’s very clear, black and white, nature. This is not the same with harmful but non-illegal content, where private companies must make difficult decisions which may encroach on freedom of expression.  

The Government can help improve the existing framework by providing clarification on grey areas of the law and providing legal definitions for terms such as “harmful content” and “offensive communications”. By doing so companies will be better enabled to make difficult decisions.

With a White Paper on the horizon it is clear that the Green Paper delivered a green light for action.

techUK is committed to engaging constructively with Government to find solutions that work.

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