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Social media platforms under increasing pressure to protect users from harm

21 March 2019

For many of us, using social media has become an integral part of life. However we are increasingly aware of the impact of social media on mental health and the harm that can be caused from exposure to certain content which is easily accessible online, as well as the harm that can be caused from misuse of personal data and data breaches. Access to content promoting terrorism and the increasing prevalence of ‘fake news’ and hate speech have all made headlines recently.

Whilst online content is regulated to some extent, it is widely recognised that the forum in which such content lives, is not. Indeed, much of the relevant regulation and legislation was developed in a very different landscape when social media was not used in the manner and to the extent that it is today. As such, many are calling for a different approach to be taken and for the days of self-regulation to be over.

When most of the government’s energy is being poured into Brexit negotiations, regulating online content seems to be one of the other issues which remains high on its agenda.

The government’s Digital Charter (published in January 2018) set out two main aims: to make Britain (i) the safest place in the world to be online, and (ii) the best place to start and grow a digital business. As part of that Digital Charter, the government published an Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper and its response, following consultation with stakeholders, was published in May last year. The response paper suggests that three main principles should underpin internet safety:

  • what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online;
  • all users should be empowered to manage online risks; and
  • tech companies have a responsibility to their users, and for the content they host.

In order to achieve this, the response paper suggests, amongst other things, the introduction of:

  • a new voluntary social media code of practice (as required by Digital Economy Act 2017);
  • a requirement on social media platforms to prepare and share an annual internet safety transparency report; and
  • a levy for social media platforms.

We now await the release of the corresponding White Paper which will be debated in the House of Commons. Its arrival is imminent and, if passed, will become law. Exactly what the White Paper will contain is anyone’s guess at this stage. Will it go as far as the Green Paper and the response paper suggest?

The government may not want another battle on its hands but pressure from all sides of both Houses is mounting. This is a hot topic. The Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing All Party Parliamentary Group published a report this week on managing the impact of social media on young people’s mental health, and the Select Committee on Communications of the House of Lords published a report earlier this month on regulation in a digital world.

The APPG report recommends a code of conduct and a levy for social media companies. It also suggests that a duty of care on social media platforms could be introduced where platforms have UK-based users aged 24 and under, regardless of the platform’s size. The SCC report recommends the introduction of a set of 10 principles which will shape and frame all regulation of the internet within the UK and a new Digital Authority which will oversee this regulation and make recommendations to the government.

There has also been some speculation as to whether the age verification obligations on pornography sites contained in the Digital Economy Act 2017 will eventually extend to social media platforms. From 1 April these age verification obligations will apply to sites which make porn available on a commercial basis, but governmental officials have commented that this could be rolled out more widely in the future.

We are undoubtedly on the cusp of a major regulatory overhaul which will change the way in which social media platforms manage content on their sites. What will happen in the long-term is not certain but watch this space over the coming months. If Brexit can be put to bed, expect attentions to shift to what is undoubtedly one of the big issues of the day.

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