In recent months, there has been a series of high-profile examples of footballers receiving racist and hateful abuse online. This weekend, English football, including the Football Association, Premier League and Women’s Super League, will unite to boycott social media in response to the “ongoing and sustained” abuse received by players and others connected to football. 

Private action filling the void

The planned boycott is a timely reminder that, while the UK has ambitious regulatory proposals to combat online harms in the pipeline, those proposals are some way off from taking effect and so private action is filling the void in the meantime. This is one of the trends discussed in our recent online harms thought leadership publication.

UK proposals

Even when the new regime does come into force, there is no guarantee that it will provide complete protection against the type of content English football is protesting against. The obligations imposed by the proposed UK online harms regime depend on whether or not that content is legal or illegal:

Illegal content - As evidenced by several recent arrests and convictions, sending racial abuse online is a criminal offence. Platforms will therefore be required to understand the risk of this type of content appearing on their platform and take reasonable steps to mitigate this risk. Though this should help reduce the amount of illegal content appearing on platforms, the regulatory framework recognises that it cannot eliminate the risk of harm entirely.

Legal but harmful content - Where the content is deemed not to be illegal but is harmful (for instance, posts that don’t cross the boundary into criminal content), only those platforms considered to be “high-risk and high-reach” will be under an obligation to protect adult users from the content. Even if a platform is under a duty to protect users against this type of content, it will not be required to remove the content from its platform (though it may choose to do so). Rather, the focus of the obligation will be on the platform’s terms and conditions that relate to legal but harmful content, and ensuring transparent and consistent enforcement of those terms and conditions.

Need for action is immediate

While the UK and several other countries continue to design their new regulatory regimes, the boycott of social media by English football shows that the need for action is so immediate that many platforms may need to take robust steps in the meantime. 

English football will be hoping that such steps include those outlined in its open letter to Twitter and Facebook, including filtering and blocking racist or discriminatory posts before they are sent/posted, and improving the verification process to ensure accurate identification of the person behind the account.