Protect children with social media regulator, charity urges government in open letter

The Carnegie Trust UK has written to Nicky Morgan urging her to lay out plans for the government’s Online Harms Bill in the Queen’s Speech

A leading charity has urged the government to announce plans for a social media regulator in an open letter to culture secretary Nicky Morgan.

Carnegie UK Trust has written to Lady Morgan, the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) secretary, urging her to “develop a statutory duty of care for online harm reduction” – a plan floated in the government’s draft Online Harm Reduction Bill earlier this year.

The trust hopes the letter will “give Nicky Morgan fresh impetus as she returns to this important task,” and fulfil an election manifesto commitment to “legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”.

The DCMS plans stalled after prime minister Theresa May resigned and the government lost its majority in the House of Commons. In its white paper, DCMS suggested it would regulate online companies and services with an independent body with powers to enforce its rules.

Nicky Morgan stood down from the House of Commons at the recent general election but has been elevated to the Lords and retains her position as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport in Boris Johnson’s new government.

The commitment in the last Queen’s Speech to a draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny was welcome, but we note that the Conservative manifesto did not give a timetable for legislation
– Carnegie UK Trust

The trust responded to the government’s White Paper in April this year with a draft version of its own.

Its principal proposals were to empower Ofcom as an interim internet regulator, because the government had not offered detailed proposals of its own, and create a new online harms advisory board with a technical advisory committee.

The trust’s draft plan secured the endorsement of select committees in the Lords and Commons and informed the “duty of care” proposal in the government’s White Paper, the open letter notes.

The trust’s plans were written by Prof Lorna Woods from the University of Essex; William Perrin, a Carnegie UK Trust trustee; and Maeve Walsh; a Carnegie UK Trust associate; and are backed by the NSPCC, 5Rights Foundation and the Royal Society of Public Health.

In the letter, Prof Woods, Mr Perrin and Ms Walsh, said the trust supported the government’s focus, but “had some reservations” about its “precise route”.

Having now secured a parliamentary majority, the joint authors called upon the Conservative government to lay out its plans in the Queen’s Speech at the opening of parliament later this week.

Writing to Morgan, the trust said: “You had suggested that you were driving the department to produce a response to the White Paper by the end of the year. The election could well have delayed that, but we hope you now have an opportunity to publish some policy proposals.

“The commitment in the last Queen’s Speech to a draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny was welcome, but we note that the Conservative manifesto did not give a timetable for legislation.”

The trust hopes its work “can focus public debate on vital elements of how a regime would work”. It wants to shape the definition of “a duty of care” which social media companies will be required to undertake, as well as see the powers of the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom extended to include the regulation of social media companies until a specialist regulator can be devised.

Ofcom “has a track record of standing up to large companies,” the trust said. Although expanding Ofcom’s powers “is not a perfect [solution] it could start quickly”, it added.

The government says it wants to protect children, tackle terrorism and criminal activity, secure a “free, open and secure internet”, and renew public confidence in online companies and services.