Tele column 12th April 2019

This week the U.K. Government’s Home Office department published a white paper regarding ‘online harms’. It is a good document that manages to identify a range of areas where people are bullied, abused, exploited and put at risk. The rapid growth of social media and the associated technologies has far outstripped any governments ability to legislate for it. And as a result, those with the least moral compunction have forged ahead spreading their material far and wide. Children have been drawn in and, in many cases, have been abused as a result. Bullying once associated with the school playground now has access to the victims wherever they are via their mobile phones. Terrorist groups spread propaganda, gang culture is promoted, and disinformation undermines our democratic values. Historically governments have shied away from legislating in these areas and instead have relied on companies to self-govern. They have encouraged responsible behaviour but in far too many cases that has not been forthcoming. Currently the printed media and their associated web sites are bound by publishing laws but the same can’t be said for the legion of self-styled commentators on the web. They are not bound by any legal obligation and a loose code of conduct is not adhered to. The balancing act that the government must achieve is to regulate the internet without hindering free speech. The statutory duty of care that is being proposed by the UK Government does not do enough. Any respectable publisher will take full responsibility for its content and not hide behind anonymity. We don’t just need a culture of transparency we need it legally enforced.