Thu 1 Jul 21
The team behind influential research into the regulation of online harms has welcomed the UK Government’s draft Online Safety Bill, while identifying a range of areas where further work is required.
Professor Lorna Woods OBE, Essex’s Professor of Internet Law, William Perrin OBE, Carnegie UK Trust Trustee, and Maeve Welsh, Carnegie UK Trust Associate, have been working since 2018 to devise a workable approach to the regulation of social media platforms and search engines.
The system-level approach they developed places an overarching responsibility on the owners of online spaces to avoid harm, and to consider risk at all stages of design and operation, in the context of their platform’s audience.
Their research has shaped the debate in the UK, and their expertise has been sought by civil society actors and governments around the world.
Professor Woods said: “We welcome publication of the government’s draft Online Safety Bill. Our initial analysis suggests the proposed approach is moving in a positive direction, recognising the need for a systemic approach to the regulation of online harms that is proportionate and respects free speech.
“The coming months provide the opportunity to refine this draft legislation. We have identified a number of areas that require further work, and also some omissions. We hope these limitations will be addressed before the Bill’s introduction later this year.”
In their initial analysis, the Essex/Carnegie team are critical of the draft Bill’s complex structure. Unless simplified, this will lead to misunderstandings, they argue, and place a greater burden on the regulator. Their response includes a proposal to combine the three ‘safety duties’ contained in the draft Bill into a single overarching requirement.
They have also questioned the extensive powers provided to the Secretary of State in the draft Bill, arguing that these powers may conflict with the UK’s free speech obligations and have implications for the independence of the regulator.
They have also called for ‘serious harm’ to be better defined, with a clear threshold for compliance.
The regulatory regime, as described in the draft Bill, will rely on enforcement of a series of Codes of Practice, some already established, with others launched alongside the draft Bill. The team have noted the lack of a Code of Practice on hate crime as a specific ‘oversight’ and have offered their own model Code, which they have further explained in a new blog.
The UK government published its draft Online Safety Bill in May. That Bill will now be subject to a process of pre-legislative scrutiny before a revised Bill is introduced later in the year.
To find out more about the risk-based approach to online safety, you can listen to Professor Woods in conversation with Dr Daragh Murray, on the RightsCast podcast.
Professor Woods will also be part of a panel discussing the Online Safety Bill on 8 July.