Digital Society
Regulating privacy and content online

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September 2020

Solent University is excited to announce the launch of "Digital Society: regulating privacy and content online", led by Dr Garfield Benjamin. The report reviews the existing regulatory and proposed policy environments, presents new surveys of UK public attitudes undertaken by YouGov, analyses key issues, and presents policy recommendations to regulate privacy and online content more cohesively.

Society increasingly relies on digital platforms. But regulation of how we interact with social media, search engines or other online platforms has so far been unsuccessful in preventing harms, ensuring rights are upheld or empowering citizens to engage in digital society. Current laws tend to separate issues out into privacy and online content. This has the advantage of giving clear remits to regulators and focusing energy, resources and expertise on specific issues. But it also holds regulators and policy-makers back when it comes to tackling larger systemic issues and inequalities.

Our study found a strong case for more integrated regulation across existing policy recommendations and in the public view. There is widespread support for greater regulation of the use of personal data online (73%), fake news online (75%) and hate speech online (71%). Trust in platforms is low, and people want greater action by platforms and government, with 67% of people surveyed showing support for regulating online privacy and content with the same set of laws and oversight bodies.

This report proposes seven steps to enable more effective and comprehensive regulation of online platforms:

  1. Regulate privacy, data and content online together : by establishing an Office for Digital Society as a formal mouthpiece to bring relevant existing regulators together;
  2. Build regulation on principles linked to rights : by placing equity, diversity, dignity and justice at the centre of policy;
  3. Provide a platform for representation : by involving affected communities in policy and regulation;
  4. Give regulators meaningful powers and the resources to exercise them : by ensuring the necessary funding, expertise and ability to effect change;
  5. Strengthen design-side regulation : by taking a more proactive approach in recommendations, regulation and requirements;
  6. Promote public understanding : by expanding practical, critical and participatory skills across education, industry and government;
  7. Plan for future development : by building a clear path for adapting and expanding the remit of the Office for Digital Society.

By taking these steps, and working more closely across government, academia, industry and communities, we can empower regulation and citizens to make a more equitable, inclusive and just digital society for everyone.

Dr Garfield Benjamin, project lead, said:

"This is an important time for regulating online platforms. The collection and use of data, and how online content is managed, are massive issues with real impact on people’s lives. A lot of fantastic progress has been made, but regulation still struggles to tackle the deeper problems and power differences between citizens, government and big tech platforms. This report highlights the underlying issues of inequality, awareness, design, and regulation, to propose a more cohesive way forward for digital society."

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This document is published under a creative commons licence:

Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)


This project was supported by Solent University, through the Research England evidence-based policy fund.

Surveys were conducted by YouGov.

Participants at the project workshop were representatives from academia, government, think tanks and advocacy groups. This included:

We thank the participants for their insightful contributions to the discussion.

We would also like to thank Dr Elinor Carmi and Areeq Chowdhury for reviewing this report.