The UK Government has repeatedly emphasised its desire to create the world's leading regulatory regime for combatting online harms. In evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 13 May 2020, the Government provided an update on the timing for the introduction of the regime and the direction of travel on some of the open questions. 

What is the online harms regime?

Our earlier post provided an overview of the proposed regime. In a nutshell, the Government intends to make platforms that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or to interact with each other subject to a statutory duty of care. This will require platforms to take reasonable steps to keep their users (and others) safe from "online harms".

When will the regime be introduced?

In the Government's update in February 2020, they promised a full response to the consultation on the regime during "spring". Now, Caroline Dinenage, the Minister for Digital and Culture, says that the response will probably be released during the autumn, with the legislation following shortly afterwards.

What did this week's update tell us about the open questions on the regime?

Many of the questions about the scope of the regime and its operation remain open. However, the Minister's evidence did provide a helpful steer on several aspects. Her evidence suggested that:

  • the Government remains minded to appoint Ofcom as the regulator;
  • the regime won't only apply to publicly-accessible content but will have some application to private channels of communication;
  • enabling end-to-end encryption on messaging channels will not automatically amount to a breach of the duty of care;
  • search engines will be required to comply with the regime;
  • the Government won't release separate codes of practice for each type of harm. With the exception of terrorist content and child sexual abuse and exploitation which will have dedicated codes, the codes will instead focus on the systems and processes platforms should put in place to comply with the duty of care;
  • when it comes to defining the harms within the scope of the regime, the legislation is unlikely to provide an exhaustive list of what amounts to legal but harmful content (as opposed to illegal content);
  • the Government is still considering the full range of potential sanctions for failures to comply, including criminal sanctions and senior management liability.

Even with the Government focused on the UK's response to Covid-19, the Minister reiterated the Government's commitment to introducing the regime. The coming months will therefore be a crucial period for the industry and stakeholders to ensure they provide their input on the proposals.