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Government evades being pinned to a date for online harms legislation

MPs challenge government on online harms bill timetable, but have to settle for “clear assurances” that it will brought to parliament before the end of the session

MPs have expressed frustration over delays in bringing online harms legislation before the House of Commons, and have tried unsuccessfully to get a concrete timeline from the government.

Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS), told MPs that he remained committed to “bringing forward this important piece of legislation”, and that the government would publish its full response to the online harms whitepaper and introduce a bill to the House for scrutiny before the end of this parliamentary session.

The whitepaper, which introduced the world’s first framework designed to hold internet companies accountable for the safety of their users, was published in April 2019 by DCMS and the Home Office, and set out plans to give companies a statutory duty of care to protect their users from harm online.

The government gave its initial response to the whitepaper in February 2020, putting forward proposals to give regulator Ofcom a range of powers to act as an online harms regulator. However, in the government’s own press release announcing its initial response, it said the full response would be “published in the spring”.

Reiterating former home secretary Sajid Javid’s remarks about the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic being the “perfect storm” for child abusers, Labour’s shadow minister for digital, Chi Onwurah, said online fraud had risen by 400% and “yet the government refuses to bring forward any legislation, neither the online harms bill nor the age-appropriate design code, although they’ve been discussed, and announced, and included in manifestos”.

Onwurah added that it was unclear how long the current parliamentary session would last, and that parents, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), and three separate select committees were all calling for legislation urgently.

“The tech giants say it would be burdensome, but whose side is [Dowden] on – can you give me a date for the code and the bill?” said Onwurah.

In response, Dowden said that, as a father, he was “on the side of young people” and that he “understands completely the need to have stringent regulation in place”.

He added: “I am happy to reassure the honourable lady again that the age-appropriate design code will be laid imminently, and as I’ve said repeatedly, the online harms whitepaper… response will come forward, and indeed legislation will come forward, in this session.

“I can see that the House is trying to nail me down to an exact date for a piece of legislation that will be brought forward in this session. I can assure… that it will be brought forward within the year.”

Dowden said it was important to hold social media companies to their own terms and conditions, and he assured the Commons that the government was working towards “robust protections for young people online”.

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The government recently came under scrutiny for the online harms delays during a meeting of the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee on 12 May, when the Lords present expressed similar frustration at the delays.

During the meeting, Caroline Dinenage, minister of state for digital and culture, said there had been a number of interruptions to parliamentary procedures over the past six months, and that although the original plan was for publication in the summer (rather than spring, as the government’s press release said), the response would be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Baroness Beeban Kidron said at the time: “It is necessary for the government to now come through on these promises. I do not underestimate the difficulty – I’ve been watching it all the way through this process – but we need a little bit more urgency here.”

Similar concerns about legislative lethargy were expressed by Labour peer Baroness Morris of Yardley, who said: “By the time our government system has found space for the legislation, the problem won’t be the problem that the legislation is trying to deal with. This area moves so quickly that it will have moved on, and we’ll be solving a problem that was two years ago.”

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