Coronavirus: Bringing Technology Policy Under the Spotlight

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Before the coronavirus crisis, the UK Government was in the process of looking into online harms and formulating legislation to combat them, with the proposed measures designed to be the ‘first of their kind’.[1] The emergence of coronavirus has highlighted the full breadth of online harms and their potential for damage, and accelerated the Government’s appetite to respond.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

National lockdowns have meant people have turned in droves to technology and online platforms for communication, entertainment and work purposes. As a result, ‘lockdown has amplified and underscored longstanding shortcomings in the online environment’.[2] These include: cyberbullying, disinformation, underage exposure to legal content, and illegal content. For example, an analysis of digital toxicity by AI start-up L1ight reported a 70% increase in hateful and abusive language among children and teens in online chats in March 2020.[3] In addition, a report by the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies committee referenced a ‘pandemic of misinformation’[4] occurring online throughout the coronavirus crisis, reinforced by Facebook CTO Mike Shroepner confirming that there has been a ‘huge increase in misinformation that we consider dangerous.’[5] With the consequences of the virus expected to persist for a ‘long period of time’[6], the need to safeguard children and vulnerable people online has never been more apparent.

However, coronavirus has amplified the positives of technology too. Many platforms have been integral to remote working and have seen a dramatic uptick in their usage. For example, Zoom has revealed that it surpassed 300 million daily meeting participants in April, a huge jump from the 10 million reported in December.[7] Other technology businesses, for example those in the video games industry, have teamed up with the Government to promote key health messages and to combat loneliness and social exclusion.[8]

SHAPING UPCOMING LEGISLATION IN THE UK

The Government published its response to the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee Report on Immersive and Addictive Technologies in June 2020.[9] The Age Appropriate Design Code which is a set of 15 flexible standards aiming to provide built-in protection for children when designing and developing online services was also laid before Parliament in June 2020.[10] It is expected that the Code will come into force in early August 2021.

Awaiting the Online Harms legislation later this year, it looks ever more likely that technology companies of all sizes will be expected to review the potential harms that their platforms could bring to users, and that substandard efforts to do so will be reprimanded by an independent regulator.[11] The lockdown has highlighted how technology businesses can be a force for good, as well as exposing negative aspects of the online world. As the UK Government designs its ‘ground-breaking’[12] legislation, all businesses should invest to understand what it will mean for them and make representations to ensure it allows them to grow and succeed responsibly.

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[1] UK to introduce world first online safety laws, 8 April 2019, link

[2] CHIS letter, May 2020

[3] Rising levels of online hate speech and toxicity during this time of crisis, L1ght, April 2020, link

[4] Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, June 2020, link

[5] Facebook upgrades its AI to better tackle misinformation and hate speech, TechCrunch, May 2020, link

[6] The Guardian, 22 April 2020, link

[7] The Verge, 23 April 2020, link

[8] Government and video games industry join forces in fight against coronavirus, April 2020, link

[9] Government response to the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee Report on Immersive and Addictive Technologies, June 2020, link

[10] Information Commissioner’s Office, 22 January 2020, link

[11] Government minded to appoint Ofcom as online harms regulator, 12 February 2020, link

[12] The Guardian, February 2020, link

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