Online harms: we welcome the government’s commitment to freedom of expression, but more action is needed on bad information

12th Feb 2020 | Will Moy

Today the government released a first response to its online harms proposals, which were published last April and aim to better regulate damaging and harmful content on sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Bad information can damage democracy, but it also ruins lives. Today’s response from the government recognises this threat, but there isn’t enough concrete action on how to tackle it. Here’s what we think needs to happen now:

We need a separate debate about tackling bad information.

Bad information ruins lives. It can promote hate, damage people’s health, and hurt democracy.

The government’s proposals in April recognised: “When the internet is deliberately used to spread false or misleading information, it can harm us in many different ways, encouraging us to make decisions that could damage our health, undermining our respect and tolerance for each other and confusing our understanding of what is happening in the wider world. It can also damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.”

The consultation response provides no detail on what the government wants to do about misinformation and disinformation.

We believe the government should develop a separate counter-disinformation strategy which should be debated by parliament in an open, transparent and democratic process – and not just handed over to an appointed regulator.

We welcome commitment to freedom of expression and role of a free press

We are pleased that the UK government has committed not to try to control the takedown of specific pieces of legal content online, unlike some other countries.

The government said that many respondents - this includes Full Fact - had “expressed concerns around the potential for the scope of the regulator to be too broad or for it to have an adverse impact on freedom of expression."

More is needed on transparency from internet companies

What the consultation response says about transparency from internet companies is not nearly sufficient. It is not credible to put so much emphasis on annual reports in an age of real time information. In the fast-moving online world, regulation cannot be effective or proportionate if it is dealing with data from months ago or only the data that internet companies choose to provide.

Companies are already trying to develop machine learning technology that could control what you get to see and share online. As experts in AI in this area, we know that without serious independent scrutiny and transparency these technologies could do real harm.

Work on election integrity is long overdue

Elsewhere in the response, the government notes that long-promised work on electoral integrity and related online transparency issues is still being taken forward. Full Fact, along with multiple other civil society groups, the Electoral Commission and parliamentary committees have long asked for reforms to our dangerously outdated electoral laws. The most recent election was left wide open to abuse due to successive governments’ failure to ensure proper transparency and accountability in online campaigns. Now is the time for parliament to take decisive action to protect our votes and democracy, in and between future polls.

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