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Open for Debate

How To Build A Safer Internet

18 November 2019

Earlier this year, the UK government consulted on an Online Harms White Paper that proposes a new model of social media regulation. The response to the consultation was lukewarm at best, and a consistent theme is that the white paper lacks a robust theoretical underpinning. The Carnegie UK Trust identify “an emphasis on detail” without “a sufficiently clear model of the duty of care”, whilst Article 19 express concerns that the government fails to “holistically [consider] what framework might be appropriate to regulate digital platforms”. Doteveryone describe the report as “a hodge-podge of Codes of Practice and initiatives with neither a clear articulation of what problem the proposals are supposed to solve, nor a clear vision for what alternative future they’re intended to promote”.

The governments’ plans to “ensure the UK is the safest place in the world to be online” are hopelessly vague, because we don’t all agree on what it would mean for the internet to be ‘safe’ – or for it to be ‘democratic’, ‘inclusive’, ‘educational’, or anything else that we might strive for. Does safety mean the ability to express oneself anonymously online, free from fear of offline repercussions, or does it require that everyone be traceable, and accountable for offensive, abusive, or otherwise illegal behaviour? Is it more democratic to allow everyone a voice regardless of what they say, or to restrict the spread of ‘fake news’ and the opinions of in-expert social media influencers? These are difficult questions, and answering them requires a unified theoretical foundation.

I am part of a new research project called Norms for the New Public Sphere, which aims to explore philosophical principles which could underlie meaningful, coherent legislation for our online spaces. We have identified three principles which we think are key, and will spend the next two and a half years thinking about how they can and should be balanced. The three principles are as follows:

  1. Epistemic value principle: A well-constituted public sphere will enable and support knowledge and understanding by institutionalising epistemically valuable practices such as fact-checking, willingness to listen and investigate, openness to criticism, and respect for epistemic peers.

This principle is a useful starting point for thinking about online harms like misinformation – e.g. the spread of false or misleading claims about climate change or vaccinations. Online platforms might count as violating a duty of care when they incentivise, or profit from, the dissemination of such claims in a way which makes it very difficult for epistemically conscientious participants to attain true or well-grounded beliefs. But the principle can also help us to formulate a positive conception of a well-functioning public sphere – what if platforms instead incentivised the development of critical thinking skills and epistemic virtues?

  1. Liberal self-government principle: A well-functioning public sphere will ensure that its members are free to participate as equals in public debate, and only decisions made as a result of such inclusive public deliberation can claim legitimacy as self-government by the people themselves. The public sphere should respect and constitute equal individual rights both to participate freely in public matters – especially in political debate and deliberation – and to wider freedom from interference.

This principle helps to make sense of harms like manipulation, e.g. voters unknowingly targeted with political messaging based on their social media activities. Platforms allowing, or profiting from, this kind of messaging might count as violating a duty of care, as this undermines the legitimacy of supposedly democratic decisions. But again, this principle is can also help us to develop a positive conception of the online public sphere – how could platforms make it easier for everyone to participate freely and on an equal footing?

  1. Privacy principle: A well-constituted public sphere must secure an appropriate space for privacy. We take ‘the private’ to be matters that can justifiably be excluded from the public deliberation and debate that leads to democratic decisions.

This principle is helpful for thinking about online harms like misuse of data – platforms which don’t create appropriate spaces for privacy, or which reward or profit from invasions of privacy, might be deemed to violate a duty of care. But this principle is also useful for thinking about positive conceptions of a well-functioning public sphere. What kinds of information and communications are properly regarded as ‘private’, and in what contexts? Are there exceptions to these in important circumstances –  such as politicians and public figures, or in cases of whistleblowing?

By themselves these principles don’t solve the criticisms raised against the white paper. In fact, they raise more questions than they answer – and that’s just considering them in isolation. Once we consider the ways these principles interact and the possible tensions between them, things become even more complicated. For example, if the self-government principle supports free-expression, does this extend to false or misleading statements which violate the epistemic value principle? And how does the epistemic value principle, which supports the exchange of important information, relate to important privacy-violating truths (e.g. about politicians’ families)? But thinking about these issues – as we will do over the course of our project – is a necessary foundation for any legislation which is supposed to guard against online harms without sacrificing the many benefits of the online public sphere.

Norms for the New Public Sphere is an AHRC-funded project based at the University of Stirling. The project members are: Rowan Cruft, a political philosopher specialising in rights and duties; Fabienne Peter, a political philosopher who has published extensively on (amongst other things) political and democratic legitimacy; Jonathon Heawood, founding chief executive of independent press regulator IMPRESS; and Natalie Alana Ashton, a feminist epistemologist with interests in relativism. The project has a partnership with Doteveryone, a think tank championing responsible tech for a fairer future.

For more information or potential collaborations, please contact

Picture  by @seanmorl