President Biden moves on online harms

For those of you waiting with baited breath to see what will happen with the UK Online Safety Bill (currently at the Committee Stage in the House of Commons), you may like to note that only last week President Biden signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing the ‘White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse’, which task force it appears will be focussing particularly on online harms which ‘disproportionately affect women, girls, people of color, and LGBTQI+ individuals, with ‘technology-facilitated gender-based violence’ it seems being the top priority. This is perhaps an unsurprising move by President Biden, given his liberal credentials, and it no doubt reflects a growing unease within liberal circles in the US about the ways in which the internet can be used to generate violent and oppressive conditions for women in the US (including women operating within the sphere of politics).

What is striking however is the rather different focus of this Task Force, when compared with the legislative agenda in the UK (and the EU). Thus, President Biden seems to wants to focus particularly on gender-based harmful conduct, whereas the Bill is aimed at addressing ‘illegal’ content (essentially content that amounts to certain criminal offences) and content that may be harmful to children and vulnerable adults. Moreover, whereas the Bill is preoccupied above all with making the online intermediaries who host and index online content the first-line caretakers of the digital realm, with Ofcom playing the role of regulatory overseer, there is no (or certainly no clear) suggestion from President Biden’s office that the Task Force should be reaching for answers that seek to treat the online intermediaries as the primary solution to the problem of online harms.

What all this suggests is two things. First, the US continues to lag some way behind the UK and the EU in terms of the development of proposals aimed at systematically tackling online harms. Second, President Biden’s administration is perhaps wary of developing proposals that would pit his administration too heavily against the major technology companies, or would otherwise suggest that he may have lost sight of the First Amendment protection for free speech rights. None of this is terribly surprising but it does remind us of the important point that, whilst online harms may be a global problem, there is currently no universal consensus as to how that problem should be tackled.

Anya Proops QC