Social Media Duty of Care team reply to government White Paper

  • Date

    Fri 21 Jun 19

An Essex academic, whose work has been at the forefront of attempts to protect internet users, has responded to the government White Paper on Online Harms.

Professor Lorna Woods, writing with Will Perrin and Maeve Walsh of the Carnegie UK Trust, welcomed the Online Harms White Paper as a “significant step in attempts to improve the online environment”, but challenged the government to better define the proposed duty of care. 

In their joint response, they also raised concerns about the scope of the proposed duty of care, the government’s failure to identify its preferred regulator, and their apparent favouring of a reactive approach, re-iterating the need for “safety by design”.

Professor Woods said: “We feel that the White Paper is a good start, but its major weakness is that it does not describe the systemic approach - on which it is based – clearly. There is a risk, then, that it may be misunderstood as just a take-down regime.”

Professor Woods, of our School of Law, and Perrin, a former government adviser, became involved in the debate on Internet Safety following publication of the government Green Paper, in October 2017.

Following extensive consultation, and through a series of seven co-authored blogs, they sought to shift the debate from ”publishing” and the removal of specific content, to harm prevention, developing a detailed plan involving a statutory duty of care, overseen by an independent regulator.  

The duty of care approach re-casts social media as a series of “public or quasi-public spaces”. In creating these spaces, the providers’ goal must be not maximising profit, or engagement, but user safety. The more vulnerable an audience, the greater the responsibility. 

The pair’s proposal inspired a campaign by The Daily Telegraph and is Labour Party policy. The Woods-Perrin approach has been endorsed by three parliamentary committees, the NSPCC and The Children’s Commissioner. It has also been cited in reports by 5Rights Foundation and doteveryone.

Their model has attracted interest from France, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. 

The Online Harms White Paper was published in April 2019. The government consultation runs until 1 July.