Online harms to democracy: the government’s change of approach

Two years after the publication of the government’s Online Harms white paper, the government has published its final consultation response. Its commitment in the white paper to legislate to prevent online harms to democracy has disappeared, to the frustration of many inside and outside parliament. Alex Walker reflects on the government’s decision to ‘abandon the field’ and argues that a laissez-faire approach could lead to negative consequences.

It is expected that the Queen’s Speech on 11 May will include the government’s long-awaited Online Safety Bill. This will be a major piece of legislation with significant implications for the regulation of digital technology companies in the UK. However, when it is introduced it now seems highly unlikely that it will encompass measures to prevent harms to democracy, as was initially indicated.

The Online Harms white paper published in April 2019 set out a position that recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. This was followed by an initial consultation response in February 2020 and a full response in December. In the course of the policy’s development, the democracy aspect of the proposals has disappeared. The government now points instead to other areas of activity. This represents a shift away from the ambition of the white paper, which promised to address online harms ‘in a single and coherent way.’

Online Harms white paper: April 2019

The white paper first put forward the government’s intention for a statutory duty of care that would make companies responsible for harms caused on their platforms. This would include illegal harmful content, such as child abuse and terrorist material, but also some forms of harmful but legal content, including disinformation and misinformation. The white paper explicitly framed some of its proposals for tackling online harms in relation to the consequences for democracy. It detailed some of the harms that can be caused, including the manipulation of individual voters through micro-targeting, deepfakes, and concerted disinformation campaigns. It concluded that online platforms are ‘inherently vulnerable to the efforts of a few to manipulate and confuse the information environment for nefarious purposes, including undermining trust’. It recognised that there is a distinction to be drawn between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation.

The white paper also set out what the government expected to be in the regulators’ Code of Practice, and what would be required to fulfil the duty of care. This included: using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who misrepresent their identity to spread disinformation. It stated that action is needed to combat the spread of false and misleading information in part because it can ‘damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.’

Initial consultation response: February 2020

The government’s initial response to the consultation on the white paper, held between April and July 2019, marked a shift in emphasis. It reframed the online threat to democracy purely as a possible encroachment of freedom of expression. It was also unclear about whether disinformation would in fact be in scope of the legislation at all, and commented only that, ‘Many civil society organisations also raised concerns about the inclusion of harms which are harder to identify, such as disinformation’.

When asked in the House of Commons whether the proposals still covered threats to democracy, the junior minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Matt Warman, said, ‘The work that the Cabinet Office is doing on protecting democracy is a hugely important, albeit complementary, part of the process, rather than something that is covered by online harms.’ This change in policy direction received relatively little comment at the time. It is worth also noting that Jeremy Wright, who has since become a vocal backbencher on this issue, was sacked as Secretary of State for DCMS when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019 – between the publication of the white paper and the initial consultation response.

Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee: June 2019–June 2020

In June 2019, the House of Lords appointed a select committee, chaired by Lord (David) Puttnam, to examine the relationship between digital technology and democracy. Its report Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust made a number of recommendations for the online safety legislation. The report praised the direction of travel outlined in the Online Harms white paper – with its recognition that online platforms could be used to undermine trust in democratic institutions – but was clear that the legislation must include misinformation and disinformation to be effective in this respect. The committee also proposed that the duty of care should explicitly encompass harms to democracy as well as to the individual.

The government’s response to the committee’s report stated that additional information regarding the remit of the duty of care would follow in the full consultation response. However, it implied that this duty would not extend to actions which undermine democracy, as democracy-related issues were being taken forward as part of the Cabinet Office-led Defending Democracy programme. It was left open as to whether tackling some forms of disinformation and misinformation would remain part of the proposals.

Full consultation response: December 2020   

The full consultation response confirms that disinformation and misinformation are still in the picture – but only that which ‘could cause significant harm to an individual’, such as anti-vaccination content. Contrary to the recommendations of the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, the duty of care will apply only to individuals – harms to minority groups and democracy are not within scope. Much of the ambition of the white paper has thus been lost. Although still an important development in the government’s approach to digital technology companies, the legislation, as proposed, will no longer be a major vehicle for tackling the challenges that online platforms pose to democracy.

This did not go totally unnoticed by parliamentarians. In the House of Lords debate on the full consultation response, Lord McNally expressed his frustration that the government were ‘choosing to ignore’ the recommendations of the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee report. Angela Eagle asked in the Commons, ‘What action would the Bill take to defend our democratic values if it was on the statute book now?’ In answer to this, the Defending Democracy programme was again referenced instead.

The Defending Democracy programme

The Defending Democracy programme was announced in July 2019 as a cross-Whitehall initiative bringing together civil society, intelligence and government departments with four priorities for democracy: protect, strengthen, respect, promote. The programme covers electoral integrity and related online transparency issues. A technical consultation on extending imprints to digital campaign material – so people can see who is behind paid-for political content – ran between August and November 2020. And a ‘Counter Disinformation Cell’ was set up in March 2020 to deal with coronavirus-related false narratives. However, thus far, the work being taken forward by the programme does not appear to cover or compensate for much of what was initially proposed in the Online Harms white paper. Furthermore, the Defending Democracy programme was described by the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russia as ‘rather fragmented’ and having been ‘afforded a rather low priority.’

The end of the era of self-regulation?

In February 2019, at the outset of the process outlined above, then Secretary of State Jeremy Wright announced in the Commons that ‘the era of self-regulation of the internet must end.’ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg added his voice to those calling for greater regulation of the internet, writing in the Washington Post that he had ‘come to believe that [Facebook] shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.’

However, it is unclear the extent to which the ‘systems-based’ approach outlined in the government’s full consultation response constitutes a shift of this order. When it comes to communications that can undermine trust in democracy, the government has largely abandoned the field. The substantial measures mentioned in the white paper to tackle political disinformation and promote fact-checking and trusted sources are absent from the full consultation response. The government’s position is now that: ‘Policy or political arguments – both online and offline – which can be rebutted by rival campaigners as part of the normal course of political debate are not regulated and the government does not support such regulation. It is a matter for voters to decide whether they consider materials to be accurate or not.’

Yet the Capitol Hill riot in the United States in January vividly demonstrated the possible consequences of adopting such a laissez-faire approach. The government’s proposals leave open the possibility of extending the duty of care through secondary legislation – which could potentially include online harms to democracy. It would be preferable, however, to act pre-emptively, rather than waiting for events to force the government’s hand. 

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About the author

Alex Walker is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit and the Communications Manager at The Constitution Society.

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