Government response to DCMS report on disinformation and fake news

Published on 04 July 2019

What does the Government’s response to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee report on disinformation mean for businesses with an online presence?

The background

On 18 February 2019 the DCMS committee published its final report on disinformation and fake news. The report followed an 18 month inquiry that considered individuals’ rights over their privacy, how their political choices might be affected and influenced by online information, and the interference in political elections carried out by malign forces intent on causing disruption and confusion.

The final report called for:

  • a compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by an independent regulator. The Code would define harmful content and operate on a similar basis to the broadcasting code issued by Ofcom
  • the regulator to be given powers to launch legal action against companies breaching the Code
  • the formulation of a new category of tech company, not necessarily a publisher or a platform, but which tightens tech companies’ liabilities for content

a legal obligation on tech companies to take down sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation.

The development

On 8 May 2019 the Government published their response to the DCMS report. The Government strongly agreed with the report’s findings that the current self-regulatory approach towards tech companies is insufficient and that there is an urgent need to establish independent regulation.

The Government accepted the majority of the committee’s recommendations on how to regulate companies with a significant online presence, particularly the need for independent regulation, the need to make companies legally responsible for monitoring and removing harmful and illegal content, and the threat of substantial fines to force companies to act.

The Government declined to follow the committee’s recommendation to introduce a new category of tech company. The Government concluded that re-categorising tech companies to simply impose liability for content would not incentivise the systemic improvements in governance and risk management that the Government believes are necessary.

The Government instead endorsed the approach set out in its White Paper on Online Harms, based on a statutory duty of care to protect users and codes of practice to ensure companies meet their legal responsibilities. This framework will apply to all companies that allow users to share or discover content or interact with each other online.

Many of the Government’s responses to the Committee’s recommendations refer to the plans outlined in the White Paper on Online Harms, and the Government’s response to the committee report should be read alongside the White Paper. For further information on the White Paper on Online Harms, please see our snapshot on the Online Harms White Paper.

Why is this important?

The Government’s response to the DCMS committee report is a strong indication that meaningful, independent regulation of online businesses is coming. The response prompted the committee chair to say that the “era of self-regulation is coming to an end”.

The new mechanism that online companies will have to navigate is the statutory duty of care. The statutory duty is likely to apply to global social media platforms, search engines, forums and review sites. All businesses which provide these services or platforms will be expected to comply with the additional obligations outlined in the DCMS endorsed and adopted in the Government’s response and the White Paper on Online Harms.

Any practical tips?

Companies facing the proposed regulations (in particular, those with larger online presences) would be well advised to consider, as a first step, their current ability to deal with harmful content.

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