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.’

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Can Boris Johnson simply repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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The Conservative manifesto pledged to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but was silent about what, if anything, would replace it. Robert Hazell argues that it is not enough to simply repeal the Act; new legislation will have to be drafted, parliamentary scrutiny will have to take place, and the options for reform should be properly considered.

Can the Fixed-term Parliaments Act simply be repealed? The short answer is: no. As always, it is more complicated than that. But the commitment in the Conservative manifesto was unambiguous: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act [sic] – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’ (page 48). And decisive action is what the government hopes to display through early repeal of the FTPA. It does not seem to be one of the issues to be referred to the new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, since they were mentioned separately in the Queen’s Speech. So — unless the government has second thoughts — we can expect early legislation to be introduced to repeal the FTPA.

The government may feel that it can press ahead with little opposition, since the Labour manifesto contained an equally unambiguous commitment to repeal: ‘A Labour government will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments’ (page 81). But there is no need for urgent legislation: this is not a pressing issue, and with a government majority of 87, we are not going to see motions for early dissolution or ‘no confidence’ any time soon. And there are good reasons for taking it more slowly: not least, that there is provision for a statutory review of the FTPA in section 7 of the Act, due to be initiated in 2020. In anticipation of that review, the Lords Constitution Committee is already conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Act, due to conclude in around March.

The evidence submitted last year to the Constitution Committee (in 14 written submissions, and four sessions of oral evidence) has brought out many of the difficulties involved. These are both political and technical. The main political difficulty is that repeal of the Act would return us to the situation where the incumbent Prime Minister can choose the date of the next election. No one disputes the potential advantage that confers: in Roy Jenkins’s famous phrase, uttered during a Lords debate on 11 March 1992, it is equivalent to deciding ‘to give the pistol in a race to one of the competitors and encourage him to fire it whenever he thinks that the others are least ready’. It also enables the government to time the election when they are doing well in the opinion polls, and to stoke up their support through good news announcements and giveaway budgets. Petra Schleiter’s research shows that this confers a significant electoral advantage: in the UK since 1945, the average vote share bonus realised on calling an early election was around 6%, and it doubled the likelihood that the incumbent PM survived in office.

Electoral fairness is the main argument for fixed terms, but not the only one. Other reasons include better planning in Whitehall because of greater certainty, less risk of losing legislation to a snap election, more clarity for the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, and for the political parties. It is true that electoral certainty has not been much in evidence in recent years, with two early elections in 2017 and 2019. But it would be wrong to judge the FTPA solely on the basis of the extraordinary Brexit parliaments of 2015 and 2017. It is too early to rush to judgement, and it is too insular: most of the Westminster world, and almost all European parliaments have fixed terms, so there is plenty of wider experience to draw upon. A more balanced approach would ask – as the Lords Constitution Committee has done – whether the FTPA needs fine tuning, and if so what amendments are required, rather than rushing straight to repeal. Continue reading