Online Harms White Paper April 2019: What you need to know

What is it?

The Online Harms White Paper is the UK government's blueprint for creating a safer and more secure online experience for UK users. Developed jointly between the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the paper sets out ambitious plans to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online” and “the best place to start and grow a digital business.” The paper also highlights the fact that it is “the first attempt globally to address a comprehensive spectrum of online harms in a single and coherent way.”

Why has it been published?

Against a backdrop of rising digital threats, harmful online content and declining levels of public concern, the government feels that current efforts to protect UK users online, particularly children, falls short.

They point to the fact that UK regulation currently in place is fragmented, patchy and insufficient to meet the full breadth of challenges outlined. Further, despite several voluntary initiatives between the government and industry (see below), not enough is being done to tackle the range of online harms. There is too much disparity in speed of moderation as well as a lack of transparency in how procedures are implemented and enforced by private companies. Indeed, a 2018 study found that 70% of Britons believed that social media companies do not do enough to prevent illegal or unethical behaviours on their platforms. This is in addition to a lack of accountability, inconsistent policies across different platforms and poor working environments for content moderators.

Staying Safe Online: Existing Voluntary Initiatives Between Government and Industry

Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT)

The GIFCT is a leading cross-industry response to reduce the availability of terrorist content on the internet. It was set up in response to the Westminster Terrorist attack in 2017 and includes several of the biggest industry names such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft.

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS)

Expanding the scope of the former UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), the UKCIS works to tackle online harms such as hate crime, extremism and violence against women and girls, in addition to maintaining a focus on the needs of children. The group are keen to prioritise education and training in the school environment.

WePROTECT Global Alliance (WPGA)

WPGA aims to protect more children, apprehend more perpetrators of abuse and make the internet free from child sexual exploitation. 85 countries are members of WPGA, along with 20 global technology companies and 25 leading non-governmental organisations.

What does the Government propose?

Essentially, the government wants greater accountability and transparency. They have proposed that an independent regulatory body will oversee a statutory duty of care and have the power to enforce and admit penalties on those companies failing to comply. 

The onus will be on industry players to make sufficiently clear their terms and conditions, particularly to children and vulnerable users. They will adhere to ‘codes of practice’ laid out by the regulator in order to meet their legal requirements, or justify how their alternative method will achieve the same outcome. Companies will need to develop more transparency, especially around the prevalence of harmful content and countermeasures taken to address these, as well as investing in online safety technologies and working with the government to develop a safety by design framework.

For users, a new online media literacy strategy will be developed in consultation with a broad range of stakeholders to help educate and increase online awareness. Whilst the government acknowledges that both tech and non-tech organisations have already contributed much in this area, they note that certain gaps still remain and that a more coordinated, strategic approach will reduce the risk of duplication and help plug these gaps in user knowledge.

What does the paper mean for schools and teachers?

Whilst a large proportion of the paper focuses on the private sector and regulation, education is also viewed as a pivotal area in combating online harms. One of the core functions of the regulator will be to “promote education and awareness-raising about online safety to empower users to stay safe online.” In doing so, the government hope this will give users, including children, the information they need to better understand and manage online risks.

For schools and teachers, the paper acts as a tool to underline and highlight a number of existing initiatives that are already ongoing amongst the education sector, rather than introducing any new proposals. The paper mentions two main curriculum changes made by the DfE which will and already are helping to educate children about the risks they can face online. The first involves the compulsory incorporation of online safety into the school curriculum as of September 2020 for both primary and secondary schools via PSHE education. The second refers to the new computer curriculum, introduced in September 2014, which includes the principles of e-safety at all key stages. These are both acknowledged as part of a broader strategy for schools.

In addition, the paper highlights several other areas where work is likely to impact on schools and teachers as well as signposting a number of other organisations whose primary objectives align closely with the education sector.

Existing school initiatives around online safety – What is currently available?

Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE)

This is the strengthened statutory safeguarding guidance for schools which includes advice on keeping children safe online. The revised guidance came into effect on 3rd September 2018.

Education Technology Strategy

Due to be published in the spring, the DfE’s Education Technology Strategy will “highlight the importance of privacy, security and safety.” It will also “include clarity on the guidelines that EdTech suppliers should adhere to and the guidance available for schools and colleges to support their procurement and use of safety technology.”

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS)

Mentioned previously, the UKCIS has a number of priorities it wishes to pursue over the next twelve months including:

  • Updated guidance for schools on sexting, online safety provision and for Initial Teacher Training providers to help them upskill new teachers in online safety.
  • Promoting their ‘Education for a Connected World Framework’ which aims to help educators engage in meaningful dialogue with students about their lives online including self-image, privacy and bullying.
  • Establishing a digital resilience framework and toolkit for all stakeholders to help better support users online across a range of harms

The National Centre for Computing Education

Providing free, high quality, knowledge-rich resources for teachers, the National Centre for Computing Education supports the teaching of computing in schools across all key stages and equips teachers with the subject knowledge and skills to establish computing as a core part of the curriculum. 

UK Safer Internet Centre

The government has also funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop cyberbullying guidance which provides advice for schools on understanding, preventing and responding to cyberbullying, and an online safety toolkit to help schools deliver sessions through PSHE about cyberbullying, peer pressure and sexting.

What does the paper mean for children?

The overall purpose of the paper is to propose a strategy to make the internet and online sphere a safer space for UK users, especially children. Throughout the document the paper is littered with findings from reports and research which demonstrate the extent to which children are at risk of harm, from the most serious, such as CSEA activity, to content affecting mental health and wellbeing. The paper aims to tackle each threat and risk on its own merits, with the overall goal of ensuring children can safely enjoy and explore the online world. 

At its core, the framework will help strengthen and enhance existing protection from online harms and accessing inappropriate material online. For instance, CSEA activity will be led by a code of practice which encompasses steps to tackle online grooming, preventing the availability of content and providing adequate support to affected users. Similar codes of practice are outlined for other harms, including terrorism, harassment, cyber-bullying and encouragement of self-harm or suicide.

In addition, the paper also outlines a number of other directives which will positively impact children:

  • An emphasis on the importance of online safety education for children from a young age and encouraging ways for them to easily reach out and share any concerns they have without feeling embarrassed or intimidated.
  • An expectation that the government will work in tandem with the tech industry to provide more up to date and innovative safety technology in line with the changing demands of the internet, in order to keep children safe online
  • The development of a ‘Safety by Design’ Framework which will serve as a blueprint to aid companies in incorporating online safety measures, particularly when developing new applications (apps) or platforms.
  • Creating tougher control measures on age limits for apps and social media platforms via an ‘age-appropriate design code’. The code will also address privacy settings, features that encourage continued use by users and easier to understand language for children.
  • The recognition that further education and information is required around deceptive and malicious behaviours online, including catfishing, grooming and extremism.
  • Supporting further research into developing a better understanding of the impact of screen time, particularly on a child’s development and well-being.
  • Supporting research on ‘designed addiction’ (a consequence of features such as the ‘infinite scroll’ or ‘likes’ which are influential in keeping users online) to help set clear expectations for companies, if necessary.
  • Placing an expectation on social media companies to adhere to the Statutory Social Media Code of Practice ahead of the new regulations in order to tackle bullying, insulting, intimidating and humiliating conduct online.
  • Ensuring companies are more proactive about identifying and removing illegal content, rather than predominantly relying on being notified by its users.

What does the paper mean for parents?

For parents, the white paper means that they can potentially see a safer online environment for their children. However, the proposals also focus on the need for increased parental education to help them make informed-decisions in managing their children’s behaviour online. 

The paper highlights the support already provided by the UK Safer Internet Centre in producing a free Safer Internet Day resource pack for parents and carers helping them understand online risks and encouraging positive conversations with their children. In addition, the paper references guidance produced by the UK Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for parents on screen time and social media use, including advice on how parents can encourage good online behaviours and usage.  

However, the government acknowledges an overall lack of online media literacy and the need for additional resources. They propose that the new online media literacy strategy will aim to fill this gap whilst also strengthening what is already readily available.

In addition, the duty of care companies will have to increase their operational transparency will help to empower parents further. Assessing the level of harmful content and the means by which companies are addressing them will ensure parents are making informed decisions around their children’s online activity and allow them to engage in relevant conversations about their online habits.

The reporting of harmful content online or raising complaints is also to be made both easier and more robust for users online. At present, processes are inconsistent with varying levels of responses and outcomes. The framework will provide users with a clearer means of raising issues, with anticipated investigatory time periods and expected responses. Further, should the user not feel their issue has been satisfactorily dealt with, then proposals are being looked at to allow escalation through an independent process.

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