the digest  October 2019

Online harms in the UK: a shifting approach?

In October, the UK’s new government set out its legislative priorities for the coming year in a Queen’s Speech (for the uninitiated, this is basically a State of the Union address). 

The Speech included an update on the government’s plans for the Online Harms White Paper, a comprehensive set of proposals to regulate online platforms in the UK. GPD, alongside other civil society groups, has been raising concerns about core elements of the White Paper for some time. 

Interestingly, aspects of this Queen’s Speech (see pp. 61-2) suggest that some of these critiques are being taken on board. Two things to note in particular:

  1. In a remarkable reversal, the government is now going to enable full parliamentary scrutiny of the proposals, by introducing them to Parliament as “draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny” next year, rather than as a finalised Online Harms Bill, as was previously indicated. This is great news from a human rights perspective, and was also one of the key recommendations we made to the government in our response to the White Paper’s publication.
  2. There’s a notably greater emphasis on the importance of human rights—including a reference to the need for proportionality and “ensuring freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online”. It also seems that the government might be walking back some of the more punitive aspects of the White Paper, with its assurance that compliance means “ensuring that companies have the right processes and systems in place to fulfil their obligations, rather than penalising them for individual instances of unacceptable content”. 

Before anyone starts celebrating, remember that the most controversial aspects of the White Paper (the duty of care, and the regulatory body) are still very much on the table. But these two subtle shifts are encouraging. They suggest that there’s still scope and time to push these proposals in a more rights-respecting direction—a more hopeful outlook than a few months ago.


  • October also saw the UK’s controversial plans for compulsory age verification on adult content shelved indefinitely—a huge win for the organisations who have been fighting it, notably Open Rights Group. Read their statement here
  • The Centre for International Governance Innovation launched a new essay series looking at the need for global platform governance. It’s well worth your time.
  • Back in May, our Head of Legal Richard Wingfield gave evidence to the UK Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights on the subject of “Democracy, free speech and freedom of association”. The report from that hearing is now out, and cites several arguments Richard put forward. Read it here.


A few updates from October:

  • GPD was in Addis Ababa for the Annual Meeting of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE)—where our Senior Programme Lead (and GFCE Advisory Board member) Daniela Schnidrig and Executive Director Lea Kaspar facilitated workshops, participated in a meeting to coordinate cyber capacity building in Sierra Leone, and contributed insight on strategy and coordination. The Annual Meeting was notably better attended by non-governmental stakeholders than in previous years, and featured strong representation and participation from the region.
  • Also in Addis Ababa this month: the last of the regional consultations into the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) process, co-organised by the African Union and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs. Some key takeaways here.
  • The UN’s First Committee saw two resolutions drafted this month: one sponsored by the US, the other by the Russian Federation (sound familiar?). While both call for the inclusion of “Developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security” in discussions at UNGA’s 75th session, they have different aims and emphases: the US-sponsored resolution centers the responsible state behaviour framework and the GGE, while the Russian one refers to “criminal and terrorist” uses of ICTs, and emphasises the Open-Ended Working Group.
  • It isn't just the UN’s First Committee discussing cyber. A resolution on “cybercrime” is currently being discussed at the Third Committee, and could be adopted as early as December—possibly resulting in a new mechanism to develop a global instrument on cybercrime. Very little is public yet, but we'll stay tuned and keep you updated.
  • Finally, GPD joined fourteen other civil society organisations in signing a joint statement on “cyber peace and human security”. Read it here.
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