The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee calls for Government to appoint new Online Harms Regulator
Online misinformation about Covid-19 was allowed to spread virulently across social media without the protections offered by legislation, promised by the Government 15 months ago.
The Misinformation in
the COVID-19 Infodemic Report details evidence on a range of harms from dangerous hoax treatments to conspiracy theories that led to attacks on 5G engineers.
The Online Harms White Paper, published in April 2019, proposed a duty
of care on tech companies and an independent Online Harms Regulator, both key recommendations from the predecessor DCMS Committee.
MPs voice new concerns that the delayed legislation will not address the harms caused by
misinformation and disinformation 203 a serious omission that would ignore the lessons of the Covid crisis.
The Report finds that tech companies use business models that disincentivise action against misinformation while affording
opportunities to bad actors to monetise misleading content. As a result the public is reliant on the good will of tech companies or the bad press they attract to compel them to act.
The DCMS Committee calls for the Government to
make a final decision on the appointment of the regulator now.
In February, the World Health Organisation warned that, alongside the outbreak of COVID-19, the world faced
an infodemic, an unprecedented overabundance of information204both accurate and false204that prevented people from accessing authoritative, reliable guidance about the virus. The infodemic has allowed for harmful misinformation, disinformation, scams and
cybercrime to spread. False narratives have resulted in people harming themselves by resorting to dangerous hoax cures or forgoing medical treatment altogether. There have been attacks on frontline workers and critical national infrastructure as a result
of alarmist conspiracy theories.
The UK Government is currently developing proposals for online harms legislation that would impose a duty of care on tech companies. Whilst not a silver bullet in addressing harmful content, this
legislation is expected to give a new online harms regulator the power to investigate and sanction tech companies. Even so, legislation has been delayed. As yet, the Government has not produced the final response to its consultation (which closed over a
year ago), voluntary interim codes of practice, or a media literacy strategy. Moreover, there are concerns that the proposed legislation will not address the harms caused by misinformation and disinformation and will not contain necessary sanctions for
tech companies who fail in their duty of care
We have conducted an inquiry into the impact of misinformation about COVID-19, and the efforts of tech companies and relevant public sector bodies to tackle it. This has presented an
opportunity to scrutinise how online harms proposals might work in practice. Whilst tech companies have introduced new ways of tackling misinformation through the introduction of warning labels and tools to correct the record, these innovations have been
applied inconsistently, particularly in the case of high-profile accounts. Platform policies have been also been too slow to adapt, while automated content moderation at the expense of human review and user reporting has had limited effectiveness. The
business models of tech companies themselves disincentivise action against misinformation while affording opportunities to bad actors to monetise misleading content. At least until well-drafted, robust legislation is brought forward, the public is
reliant on the goodwill of tech companies, or the bad press they attract, to compel them to act.
During the crisis the public have turned to public service broadcasting as the main and most trusted source of information. Beyond
broadcasting, public service broadcasters (PSBs) have contributed through fact-checking and media literacy initiatives and through engagement with tech companies. The Government has also acted against misinformation by reforming its Counter
Disinformation Unit to co-ordinate its response and tasked its Rapid Response Unit with refuting seventy pieces of misinformation a week. We have raised concerns, however, that the Government has been duplicating the efforts of other organisations in
this field and could have taken a more active role in resourcing an offline, digital literacy-focused response. Finally, we have considered the work of Ofcom, as the Government's current preferred candidate for online harms regulator, as part of our
discussion of online harms proposals. We call on the Government to make a final decision now on the online harms regulator to begin laying the groundwork for legislation to come into effect.