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UK government orders review of online laws

The UK Law Commission is to review current legislation on offensive online communications to ensure they are up to date with technology

Prime minister Theresa May has announced plans to review laws to make sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online.

The government makes clear in the Internet safety strategy green paper published in October 2017, that abusive and threatening behaviour online is totally unacceptable.

The online law review by the UK Law Commission will determine whether laws are effective enough in ensuring parity between the treatment of offensive behaviour that happens offline and online, and will include the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.

The government has also announced it will introduce a comprehensive new social media code of practice in 2018 to set out the minimum expectations on social media companies, and the introduction of an annual internet safety transparency report to provide UK data on offensive online content and what action is being taken to remove it.

The social media code of practice will cover

  • The development, enforcement and review of robust community guidelines for the content uploaded by users and their conduct online.
  • The prevention of abusive behaviour online and the misuse of social media platforms.
  • The reporting mechanisms that companies have in place for inappropriate, bullying and harmful content, and ensuring they have clear policies and performance metrics for taking this content down.
  • The guidance social media companies offer to help users identify illegal content and contact online, and advise them on how to report it to the authorities.
  • The policies and practices companies apply around privacy issues.

Annual reporting will help to set baselines against which to benchmark companies’ progress, and encourage the sharing of best practice between companies, the government said.

In line with these initiatives, Matt Hancock, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport announced an online safety guide developed by the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) for those working with children, including school leaders and teachers, to prepare young people for digital life.

He also announced a commitment from major online platforms including Google, Facebook and Twitter to put in place specific support during election campaigns to ensure abusive content can be dealt with quickly, and that they will provide advice and guidance to parliamentary candidates on how to remain safe and secure online.

The transparency report will reflect

  • The amount of harmful content reported to companies.
  • The volume and proportion of this material that is taken down.
  • How social media companies are handling and responding to complaints.
  • How each online platform moderates harmful and abusive behaviour, and the policies they have in place to tackle it.

The move is in response to a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to provide specific support for Parliamentary candidates so that they can remain safe and secure while on these sites during election campaigns.

“We want to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and having listened to the views of parents, communities and industry, we are delivering on the ambitions set out in our Internet Safety Strategy.

“Not only are we seeing if the law needs updating to better tackle online harms, we are moving forward with our plans for online platforms to have tailored protections in place – giving the UK public standards of internet safety unparalleled anywhere else in the world,” he said.

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“There are laws in place to stop abuse but we’ve moved on from the age of green ink and poison pens,” said law commissioner David Ormerod. “The digital world throws up new questions and we need to make sure that the law is robust and flexible enough to answer them.

“If we are to be safe both on and off line, the criminal law must offer appropriate protection in both spaces. By studying the law and identifying any problems we can give government the full picture as it works to make the UK the safest place to be online,” he said.

The government said it will be outlining further steps on the internet safety strategy, including more detail on the code of practice and transparency reports in the coming months.  

In January 2017, the UK children's commissioner has called for better support for child privacy after study shows most are unknowingly agreeing to share private data, and in March 2017, a House of Lords Select Committee report on online safety called for internet service providers and the government to do more to protect the interests of children using the internet.

The report made a series of recommendations, calling on the government to show top-down, sustained leadership on the issues, for an ambitious programme of digital literacy, minimum standards for internet services and content providers, and a commitment to child-centred design.

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