A lot of good proposals in the Online Harms White Paper but a lack of focus on taxation

By Areeq Chowdhury.

The Government has finally published its long-awaited white paper on ‘online harms’. There are a lot of good and welcome proposals within it, however, ‘tax’ (which should play a central role in the fight against online harms) is mentioned just once in the entire 37,000 word document.

Internet platforms, whilst having the ability to do good in society, can wield enormous power and often exacerbate the worst evils. We know this already. Whether it is because of child pornography, terrorist propaganda, hate speech, or other illicit activities – regulation is needed.

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The White Paper is the first attempt globally to address a range of online harms within a single framework.

A lot of the recommendations echo those made in the past by WebRoots Democracy and others. In particular, the ability to suspend websites from operating in the UK (as a last resort) is absolutely necessary for any new regulator to have teeth. The first report in our Regulating Social Media project published in October last year made a number of policy recommendations including:

  • The creation of a new independent regulator called the Office for Social Media Regulation.
  • The introduction of powers to temporarily suspend social media platforms from operating in the UK as a final sanction for inaction on abuse.
  • A requirement for social media companies to submit quarterly transparency reports to the new regulator.
  • For social media companies to innovate the method they display and obtain consent from users to their terms, conditions, and community standards.
  • The introduction of a new, user-based tax on social media giants to fund digital literacy and anti-discrimination initiatives.

The White Paper makes proposals for the first four of these recommendations. As part of the new regulatory framework for online safety, the Government proposes to:

  • Establish a new statutory duty of care to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services.
  • Create a new independent regulator to oversee enforcement.
  • Require annual transparency reports from companies outlining the prevalence of harmful content on social media platforms and the countermeasures being taken.
  • Consult on powers to enable the regulator to disrupt or block the business activities of non-compliant companies.

These measures, however, are generally reactionary rather than preventative. The main proposal WebRoots Democracy has been pushing, therefore, is the introduction of a ‘civil internet tax’ on social media giants to fund offline actions to tackle online harms at their roots. This tax would be levied as a tariff based on the number of UK users and not on profit or revenue. It would help fund a new regulator, the police, and third sector initiatives.

The £4.6 million fund mentioned in the White Paper for police training on tackling digital crimes equates to just £38 per officer. Will that be sufficient?

online harms
A comparison of how the same content is regulated across different platforms. (Source: UK Government)

Overall, though, the proposals are positive. I was expecting the White Paper to fall short of calling for measures that could actually make a difference but there is actually a lot to welcome within it. It does not, despite what you may read, represent an attack or affront to freedom of speech.

Light touch regulation, or no regulation at all, would do nothing to prevent the spread and proliferation of online harms. Regulators must have teeth. Long term, however, we need to focus on how best we can extract taxes from Silicon Valley giants to fund preventative action.

The consultation on the proposals is open until July 1st 2019. For details on how to respond, click here.

Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.

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