House of Commons Library

Social media: how much regulation is needed?

Published Thursday, December 19, 2019

This Library Paper looks at what has been said on regulating social media.

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What's the problem?

There is increasing concern about harmful content and activity on social media. This includes cyberbullying, the intimidation of public figures, disinformation, material promoting violence and self-harm, and age inappropriate content.

Critics, including parliamentary committees, academics, and children’s charities, have argued that self-regulation by social media companies is not enough to keep users safe and that statutory regulation should be introduced.

The Online Harms White Paper – a new regulatory framework?

An Online Harms White Paper was published in April 2019. This set out the then Government's approach for tackling “content or activity that harms individual users, particularly children, or threatens our way of life in the UK.”

According to the White Paper, existing regulatory and voluntary initiatives had “not gone far or fast enough" to keep users safe. The Paper proposed a single regulatory framework to tackle a range of harms. At its core would be a statutory duty of care for internet companies, including social media platforms. An independent regulator would oversee and enforce compliance with the duty. 

A consultation on the proposals closed on 1 July 2019.


The White Paper received a mixed reaction. Children’s charities were positive. The NSPCC said that the Paper was a “hugely significant commitment” that could make the UK a “world pioneer in protecting children online”.

However, many commentators raised concerns that harms were insufficiently defined and that the Paper blurred the boundary between illegal and harmful content.

The Open Rights Group and the Index on Censorship have warned that the proposed framework poses serious risks to freedom of expression.

What next?

The Queen’s Speech of 19 December 2019 says that the Government “will develop legislation to improve internet safety for all”. A Background Briefing to the Speech states that the Government wants to keep people safe “in a proportionate way, ensuring that freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online, and that the value of a free and independent press is preserved”. According to the Briefing, the Government is analysing responses to the consultation on the Online Harms White Paper. It will then prepare legislation to implement its policy decision.


Commons Briefing papers CBP-8743

Author: John Woodhouse

Topics: Information technology, Internet and cybercrime, Media

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