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:
- 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.
- 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.