Civil society organisations react to the Government’s response to Online Harms White Paper

Online Harms White Paper

Tuesday’s announcement by the government marks an important milestone in making the Internet safer in the UK. There is a lot in the Online Harms White Paper response which we welcome but sadly, it has fallen short when addressing the disproportionate levels of online harms faced by women and marginalised communities. 

When the government announced the launch of the White Paper in April 2019, a comprehensive legal framework to address the wide range of online harms was long called for. Despite commitments by technology companies to curb online harms, abuse and harmful content continues to thrive in online spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled new forms of online violence. The pandemic has also exacerbated gender-based abuse, especially for those with multi-intersecting identities, such as LGBTQ+ women, Black women, women of colour, and disabled women, presenting unique challenges for our collective safety online. Glitch’s Report with the End the Violence Against Women Coalition, Covid-19 and the Ripple Effect, published in September showed an almost 50% increase in online abuse for women and non-binary people, with these figures worsening for those from minoritised backgrounds. 

The unique circumstances we are experiencing have made the introduction of robust legislation to address online harms more urgent. We welcome the government’s recognition of the severity of online abuse, particularly racist, antisemitic and misogynistic abuse, as well as calls for greater transparency from technological companies.

However, as civil society organisations working across sectors in the UK to address online harms, we have concerns about gaps in the forthcoming legislation and programme of work to support this. During The Secretary of State’s statement, there was very little mention of the types of harms that women – especially those with multi-intersecting identities – face. Technology companies cannot fulfill their duty of care to online users without addressing the disproportionate gendered impact. We also acknowledge that whilst increased accountability for techonological companies – including annual transparency reports – is a positive step, there are limitations for how we can truly make the online space safe for all without an increase in digital citizenship education. 

We call on the government to:

  • Include specific measures to address online abuse which affects women and people with intersecting identities. The current proposal does not go far enough in recognising the specific online harms that women with intersecting identities face online;
  • Outline in more detail how technology companies’ ‘duty of care’ will be enforced, both in respect of illegal content, as well as legal but harmful content. Duty of care should go beyond the removal of illegal content and Ofcom, the UK regulator, needs to be given a mandate and the means to hold technology companies accountable for the safe design of their systems and processes;
  • Bring forward the publication of the promised Digital Citizenship Strategy and promote digital citizenship education as a key priority, alongside the regulation of technological companies. While financial sanctions against technological companies and the enforcement of the duty of care are essential in addressing online harms, more investment in impactful digital citizenship is needed to make the Internet a safer space.

Signed by:

  • Glitch
  • Centenary Action Group 
  • Jo Cox Foundation
  • Antisemitism Policy Trust 
  • Carnegie UK Trust 
  • Stonewall
  • HOPE Not Hate
  • Compassion in Politics

Glitch is a UK registered charity. Charity number: 1187714