A few days ago the Government published its Initial Response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper (April 2019).

The Online Harms White Paper sets out the intention of the government to improve protections for users online through the introduction of a new duty of care. The subsequent 12 week consultation period received over 2400 responses from a range of stakeholders.

This response provides an overview of these responses and the government’s engagement with representatives from industry and civil society. In the press release, ministers repeat the government’s aim for the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online and to start and grow a digital business.

The government acknowledges the response is not detailed in all areas, but does give an indication of their “direction of travel”, in particular, the response states:


  • The government is very likely to appoint Ofcom as the regulator responsible for enforcing the statutory duty of care to protect users from harmful and illegal terrorist and child abuse content.
  • Ofcom will have increased powers in line with its broader responsibilities including the ability to issue warnings, notices and substantial fines.
  • The government are considering senior management liability and business disruption measures including ISP blocking to incentivise company executives to take online safety seriously.

Freedom of expression

  • Regulation will focus on the wider systems and processes platforms have in place to deal with online harms rather than requiring the removal of specific content, with the aim of not stifling freedom of speech.
  • Regulation will distinguish between illegal content and activity which must be taken down, and conduct which has the potential to cause harm.
  • Companies will have to explicitly state what content and behaviour they deem to be acceptable on their sites and enforce this consistently and transparently.
  • Platforms must quickly remove illegal content, with particularly robust action on terrorist content and online sexual abuse.
  • Companies must have effective redress mechanisms.

Protection of children

  • A higher level of protection will be expected for children and reasonable steps must be taken to protect them from inappropriate or harmful content.
  • Companies expected to use tools like age assurance and age verification technologies to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content.

Businesses in scope

  • Regulation will only apply to companies which facilitate the sharing of user generated content (which they say will catch fewer than 5% of UK businesses, but which will catch major social platforms).
  • Business-to-business services posing a low risk to the public will not be caught and companies with merely a social media presence will not be caught.


  • Reporting on the reasons behind, and prevalence of, content removal.
  • Ofcom will apply minimum thresholds in determining the level of detail that an in-scope business would need to provide.

Next steps

  • Full consultation response will be published in Spring 2020.
  • The Government is prioritizing the preparation of legislation on Online Harms.
  • In the meantime, other measures are planned to progress online safety including interim codes of practice, a government transparency report, non-legislative measures and wider regulation and governance of the digital landscape.

Ben works with clients on matters involving the cross-over space of media, IP and technology. His practice has a particular focus on artificial intelligence, data protection, copyright and technology disputes. He has a particular expertise in intermediary liability issues.