It has been recently announced that the Digital Harms Bill (that has been inching closer to its third reading in the House of Commons for months), has been put on hold. For the Government, this bill has been trumpeted as a 'milestone in the fight for a new digital age'. An age where the internet will be a safer, more regulated space for users. Key to this is the goal of adding further protections to stop children from seeing inappropriate or harmful content (including bullying and harassment) and limiting the ability of consumers more widely to access illegal content –while also protecting freedom of speech. It is nothing if not ambitious.
There can be little doubt that the objectives behind the Digital Harms Bill are both laudable and popular, but it is the implementation of the Bill that has been questioned by both MPs and also the wider tech and legal community. On one hand, some of the legal commentaries on the bill have focused on the vagaries of how in-scope services and concern about “duty of care” are being defined. On the other hand organisations like the Institute of Economic Affairs have, in their briefing paper on the Digital Harms Bill, claimed it “raises significant issues for freedom of expression, privacy and innovation”and that “there is a lack of evidence to justify the legislation, concerning both the alleged prevalence of what the Bill treats as ‘harm’ and the link between the proposed measures and the desired objectives”.
That a Bill should attract criticism or controversy isn't exactly new, but it is fascinating to see the level of criticism being leveled at this legislation when the public consensus for something to deal with the problem is so large. Certainly on the highly emotive topic of child safety, a recent NSPCC/YouGov survey showed that public opinion is very firmly pro-regulation. At the same time a far broader project conducted by Demos on behalf of BT showed a more nuanced picture that, while showing broad support for “something” to be done, also revealed real “concerns and divisions on who should get to decide what counted as harmful, or on what the actual impact of the proposed action on harms would be”.
MPs themselves echo many of these concerns when Ipsos asked about the strengths of the Bill in November 2021. The goal of protecting children and vulnerable groups online and fighting back against trolls and hate speech are the top two strengths of the Bill and are supported fairly equally by both Tories and Labour. While Labour is less keen on providing a regulatory framework for the internet, both parties are in agreement that holding publishers and platforms to account will be a strength of the legislation once it passes.
The ultimate goal for many Conservatives is best summed up by a Conservative Minister who said; "I think for too long we have treated online activity in a different way that we treat real life activity. And I’m hoping that the Online Harms Bill will create greater parity between physical existence and online existence. Members of the public just behave differently online than they would in a face-to-face interaction and that applies to lots of different elements of their behaviour online, and so anything that we can do to try to make sure that people continue to behave reasonably online, as they would if the were in person, the bill will have done its work."
These opinions on the disconnect between online and real-life are echoed by another Conservative backbencher who said that the major strength of the Bill is that it sends a signal to the sector that governments are no longer going to be passive on these issues, even if the legislation itself won’t be as effective as might be ideal; "I mean, I have very serious questions about the effectiveness of the legislation itself, but I think it’s worth doing, nonetheless, because it is a message from the government about that it is a priority. It sends a strong message to the tech sector and to the wider public that how people conduct themselves online is being more closely monitored and looked at.”
This is a very similar line taken by many Labour MPs, who recognise the value of the legislation existing but are worried about the details of what the Bill does and does not cover and how enforcement might be implemented. Two frequently mentioned concerns are whether the Bill will be future-proof given the speed by which the tech sector changes and the list of issues that the Bill does not cover; from age verification to quality standards when it comes to online retail; “I think the real issue is will it be future-proof? Because we know that tech moves really quickly and legislation is often legislating for what’s already happened rather than what’s going to happen.”
The biggest concern among MPs (especially among Labour) is the lack of power within the Bill to make the major tech companies and their senior leadership liable for what happens on their platforms and websites, “It doesn't go far enough in making the executives of social media companies personally liable for harms and damage that they cause.”
Not even this raft of negativity can change the fact that MPs, like much of the general public agree that that something needs to be done. Even if it isn’t perfect. This is why it is not a surprise that the Bill has received such high levels of support among MPs. Back in November and December 2021, Ipsos asked MPs whether they supported the idea of the Digital Harms Bill (in the form it was in then) passing into law – 73% of MPs overall said yes with majority support from the two main parties.
Despite the enthusiasm for progress from both the public and MPs, the latter will need to remember that public trust in the government, or indeed any of the sectors implicated in the spread of misinformation, is low. Data from Ipsos’s Global Trustworthiness Monitor 2021 shows that more people in the UK disagree than agree that any of the Government, Media, Tech Sector or Social Media sector are working to prevent the spread of misinformation – one of the core issues the Digital Harms Bill is going to address.
Q. Works to prevent the spread of false information
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While the Digital Harms Bill may prove to be the evidence the public needs to change their mind on whether they think the government is working on this issue, it also raises the pressure on the government, and the House of Commons more widely, to get this Bill right first time.
All this might be debatable if the bill gets killed-off by the next Conservative Prime Minister. However, it can be strongly suggested that this would be a reckless move given the appetite among both the public and MPs to take action on these issues. If the Bill is killed off, or even if it is passed but does not work as planned, the pressure on the major tech companies to comply to the spirit, if not the letter of the regulation will be considerable. In that regard, it’s in the interests of much of the tech sector, including VSPs and social media platforms, to get behind the bill now.
The results and the quotes from MPs in this article are sourced from the winter 2021 wave of the Ipsos MPs survey – a syndicated biannual survey of MPs. 98 MPs were interviewed in total with quotas and weighting used to ensure the profile is reflective of all British MPs by political party. All interviews were conducted in person (face-to-face or over the phone) between November 2021 to February 2022.