Online Harms White Paper Consultation Response

Scottish PEN and English PEN submitted a response to the British government’s consultation on its Online Harms White Paper. Read our submission below

June 28, 2019

Scottish PEN and English PEN have today submitted a response to the British government’s consultation on its Online Harms White Paper.

Published jointly by the Home Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in April 2019, the White Paper proposes new regulation to tackle ‘online harms’ ranging from terrorist content and child sex-abuse images, to phenomena such as trolling, cyberbullying and fake news. It proposes to do this by introducing a new ‘duty of care’ for online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google/YouTube.

The joint response from English PEN and Scottish PEN expresses concern with the proposals, and urges the government to put free expression and human rights at the centre of any new system of regulation. In common with other civil liberties groups, the response calls on the government to adopt a regulatory approach founded on the protection of internationally recognised human rights. This would include the right to physical safety and support with mental health, but also respect freedom of expression and digital privacy rights. This rights-based approach would also set an excellent example internationally.

The response also:

  • Warns that confusing regulation in the UK may be copied by authoritarian regimes eager to shut down online dissent;
  • Expresses concern over how a new regulatory system will impact on news publishers;
  • Asks how regulation will affect the academic discussion of important issues such as global terrorism;
  • Points out that the use of algorithms to bulk moderate content could unwittingly squeeze on free speech.

We acknowledge that ‘harm’ to individuals, particularly children, can be caused by the misuse of online communications. But we also wish to affirm the importance of the right to freedom of expression, and that curtailment of free speech is itself a ‘harm’ to which government and parliament must give significant weight during its decision-making process. We are concerned that the White Paper does not pay sufficient regard to the importance of freedom of expression, and other human rights, in its policy approach.

Quoting from a letter to Sajid Javid MP and Jeremy Wright MP signed by Scottish PEN President, Carl MacDougall and English PEN Chair, Maureen Freely

Read our submission to the Online Harms Consultation by clicking here