Whether you think it went too far or not far enough the UK’s Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) ‘Online Harms‘ white paper published yesterday is a welcome development in the debate about online safety.
Freedom of speech versus protection of the vulnerable
Defenders of the valuable and important rights to freedom of speech we enjoy in the UK have criticised the paper for threatening to curtail these and warned that it may pave the way for censorship. The vagueness of wording around ‘unacceptable content’ is what has prompted the outcry. Exactly what falls into not-quite-illegal but still unacceptable is open to wide-ranging interpretation which is causing alarm bells in some quarters.
But there are those, including me, who welcome the white paper for what it attempts to do which is to start the process of introducing regulation into the Wild West of the digital world. Even though it is incredibly frustrating that it has taken us so long to get to this point. And even though the process now involves a further consultation period and no doubt further delays before we begin to see the introduction of any Regulatory Body that the paper proposes.
Online harms to children
If you have spent any time working with the police battling in the area of child protection, or spoken to the many psychiatrists working in child and adolescent mental health you will know that the harms from some aspects of the online world are real and children are suffering as a result. This has gone on long enough. The World Wide Web is now 30 years old, social media is a teenager and we have not even even begun the process of ensuring the vulnerable are protected by at least the same duty of care that they enjoy in the world offline.
Social media platforms have argued vehemently against regulations for a long time, even though Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently changed tack on this and called for stronger regulation across harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. It’s this area of what constitutes ‘harmful content’ that’s going to take the most debating. I am sure we will hear impassioned arguments and raised voices on both sides. The line between protecting freedom of speech and protection of the at-risk is a delicate one but it’s a line we must now all attempt to walk. I’m relieved we are at least starting the journey.