The UK Government has recently responded to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee's (DCMS) report on Immersive and Addictive Technologies by reinforcing its aim to make the UK the safest place to be online. This is consistent with the Government's response to the Online Harms White Paper earlier this year, and we await further details of the online harms regulatory framework later this year. Whilst applauding immersive technologies and content for their economic, social and cultural benefits, the Government suggests that the industry presents new risks to users (in particular, to children and vulnerable individuals).
The industry should note that the Government aims to take an "evidence based policy" approach, suggesting that "where evidence of harm is identified, [the Government] will take strong, rapid and proportionate action to ensure users are protected".
Key findings from the Government's response include:
- Video games - the Government acknowledges that further research is needed about the impact of video games on players, and recommends a series of workshops to help determine the scope of the research alongside industry insight and data. The Government has rejected the DCMS' suggestion of a levy on the games industry to pay for new research, but remains open to other funding arrangements (including a possible co-investment model with industry).
- Online age ratings - the Government wants to see the age ratings from physical copies of games applied to all online video games. Acknowledging that the majority of video game platforms already do this, by adopting the Pan European Game Information age ratings, the Government will make a further assessment of voluntary compliance and will continue to work with the industry to drive adoption on every major platform. If there is insufficient voluntary implementation of age ratings, the Government will consider legislation in this space. It is no surprise that the Government appears to be slightly reluctant to address online age ratings itself at this stage. It was only last year that it abandoned its own plans to introduce similar age checks for accessing online pornography after years of technical troubles and concerns about privacy.
- Combatting excessive screen time – the Government states that its online harms regulatory package and the ICO's Age Appropriate Design Code are intended to protect individuals, particularly children, from illegal and harmful online practices and behaviours. The Government intends to continue supporting research in this area to inform future action and will encourage companies to design their products in safe ways (including being transparent about design practices which encourage extended engagement). The Government notes that there is not yet sufficient evidence regarding the impact of screen time for the new online harms regulator to set requirements for companies. The Age Appropriate Design Code was laid before Parliament on 11 June 2020 and is expected to be passed later this year.
- Loot boxes – in the Queen's Speech, the Government announced its intention to carry out a review of the Gambling Act 2005, which will examine loot boxes (amongst other things), and the Government will call for evidence on the issue in due course. This evidentiary process will examine the following non-exhaustive areas: size and variation of the market, the design of mechanisms, the impact on consumers and particularly young people including links to problem gambling, and the effectiveness of the current statutory and voluntary regulation. The results from the call for evidence will be considered alongside the Government's review of the Gambling Act 2005, and will build on the industry initiatives to date which deal with loot boxes and other third party reports on the topic (for example, from the Children's Commissioner). It is likely that gambling advertising in online games such as FIFA will come under review, as the Government examines closely the relationship between gaming and gambling.
- Esports – the Government will bring forward plans for a ministerial roundtable with a range of esports stakeholders, to discuss the opportunities and barriers to growth of the industry in the UK and how to encourage best practice in areas such as player well-being and esports integrity. The fact that the Government finally appears to be taking the growth of esports seriously is a welcome sign. The popularity of esports and its importance to the economy has increased significantly in recent years – in particular since the start of the lockdown – and given the number of issues that we are seeing in terms of player welfare, integrity and other contractual issues, action in this space cannot come soon enough.
- Deepfakes – the Government recognises the potential for immersive technology to create "deepfakes" and false information, and will continue to monitor how the technology develops.
If you would like any further information on these developing issues, please contact Nick Nocton, Simon Leaf or Emily Dorotheou.