Online Harms White Paper: Let’s tackle internet fears and help more people reach their digital potential

No-one is a bigger advocate of the wealth of opportunity that the internet offers than me. However, we do have to acknowledge that the internet also opens people up to risk. Technology evolves, transforms, and innovates at a speed that legislation just isn’t keeping up with. This why I am largely supportive of the hotly anticipated Online Harms White Paper, released earlier this week by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office (what do you mean that “we don’t all hotly anticipate government white papers!?”)

This White Paper is the government setting out its policy to tackle “online harms” such as extremist content, “fake news” (or “disinformation”, as it’s referred to in the paper), child abuse and other elements of the internet that put many people off using it altogether. As a result of this White Paper, internet companies could be fined, or even blocked, if they fail to tackle issues on their platforms. They are hoping to do this through establishing an independent regulator who will draw up a code of practice and giving it the power to fine non-compliant companies – including possibly fining their chief execs – or block sites that break the rules.

There are concerns about freedom of speech implications, however, when looking at the paper from the view of encouraging digitally excluded people to get online and enacting social change through digital, it’s hard to see this as anything but a positive step forward.

It’s important that whilst online harms are taken seriously, that they are understood. One in five non-internet users don’t go online because they don’t trust the internet, or don’t feel it’s online or secure. The internet can be a frightening place, especially for those with low self-confidence in using technology. However, letting fear of the dangers of digital stop someone from using it or, in the case of parents, restricting childrens’ use, is counterproductive to their life chances and the potential for our society and our economy.

The benefits of digital far outweigh the dangers. The economy is becoming more reliant on digital and digital skills are increasingly becoming vital for competing in the job market – and on top of this, people can save £744 a year by just being online and being able to shop around better for goods and services. Those who are shutting themselves off from the online world are putting themselves at a disadvantage, and we need to tackle why some people are frightened of the internet and how we address these concerns.

One recommendation I’m particularly excited is the Empowering Users section, where Government sets out its plans to help people tackle online harms, through giving them the online media literacy to manage their own online safety. In this section, the needs of adults (and children) to be able to practice online safety are acknowledged

“However, for adults, there is insufficient messaging or resources covering online media literacy. There is a need for further work to address issues such as the sharing of disinformation, catfishing (i.e. luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona), attacks on women online (particularly public figures), and the differing needs of people with disabilities when navigating information.”

At Good Things Foundation, we know full well just what a concern online safety can be for people who are digitally excluded. Because of this, we’ve developed a number of internet safety courses on our Learn My Way platform, which helps people tackle online harms. We know better than anyone that media literacy support is incredibly helpful for adults for a number of reasons, and especially tackling online harms. If we want to truly unlock the potential that a fully digital UK could offer, then we need to bring about a society with higher levels of digital skills, and less technophobia  – an important pillar in bridging the digital divide, that we are so passionate about.