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Online Harms Bill: Our Democracy is at Stake and the Government Isn’t Serious About Tackling it

Kyle Taylor on the irresponsible omission in the Government’s new Online Harms White Paper — the protection of democracy.

Online Harms Bill
Our Democracy is at Stake and the Government Isn’t Serious About Tackling it

Kyle Taylor on the irresponsible omission in the Government’s new Online Harms White Paper — the protection of democracy.

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This week, the Government published its Online Harms White Paper – the first announcement from the Government since its consultation into “online harms”, which ran from April to the end of June 2019.

It covers many issues, chiefly the announcement that the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom will be the new online regulator and that it will monitor processes rather than content.

However, on the crucial issue of disinformation, fake news and online harms to democracy it is conspicuously silent. 

The only mention of “democracy” comes deep into the paper when it states that “work on electoral integrity and related online transparency issues is being taken forward as part of the Defending Democracy programme together with the Cabinet Office”.

It is impossible to think of a good reason why this needs to be taken forward by another programme in the distant future.

At the start of this year, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Electoral Campaigning Transparency produced a 20-recommendation report, Defending Democracy in the Digital Age, to combat the online harm caused to democracy. Last February, Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee concluded its inquiry into Disinformation and Fake News, producing a number of recommendations of how to combat this. A report by the Information Commissioner’s Office’, Democracy Disrupted, also made recommendations.

Multiple confirmed breaches of electoral law have led to fines and criminal investigations. A report into Russian influence in British political life, including during the 2016 EU Referendum, has been completed, but the Government is still refusing to publish it.

We know there is a problem and more than enough bodies have made evidence-based suggestions on how to fix them. So, why is nothing being done?

This isn’t just a disappointing omission in the Online Harms White Paper, but an irresponsible one. The issue of safeguarding elections isn’t just urgent now, it has been so since the early 2017 revelations of the wrongdoings in the EU Referendum. “Disinformation” is mentioned twice in the document. “Fake news” is not mentioned at all. Of course, it should address important issues such as child safety on the internet, but that’s not the only important thing at play. Our democracy is at stake and the Government doesn’t seem to be serious about tackling it.

Once again, the Government is dragging its heels on one of the most important issues threatening our democracy.

At the Fair Vote Project, we feel like a broken record having to point out again and again that absolutely no laws have been passed since we learned of gross attempts to subvert our democratic systems. We have 20 recommendations that the Government could implement now that would protect our democracy in the digital age.

No more consulting, it’s time for action.

Kyle Taylor is project director at Fair Vote.

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