The Online Harms White Paper: whatever happened to online-offline equivalence?

By Graham Smith


Graham Smith provides the next article in our series on Online Harms White Paper series, considering the fate of online-offline equivalence.

From internet time immemorial the UK government has adhered to the principle of online-offline equivalence. No Ministerial speech or government paper has been complete without reaffirming that what is illegal offline should be illegal online, or perhaps invoking its kissing cousin: that laws should be technology neutral.

However the Online Harms White Paper marks a significant departure from online-offline equivalence. The new nostrum is that the internet is different, so requires a new and different legal regime.

In the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, published in October 2017, equivalence of illegality had already started to mutate: “What is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online.” In February 2019 Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright produced his own version: “A world in which harms offline are controlled but the same harms online aren’t is not sustainable now…” Then in March 2019 the House of Lords Communications Committee report Regulating in a digital world proposed a “parity principle”: “The same level of protection must be provided online as offline”. These reformulations tend to emphasise equivalence of outcome rather than applicability of the same laws.

Read the full article on MediaWrites.