AGENCY: Assuring Citizen Agency in a World with Complex Online Harms

Background for the project

The term ‘complex harm’ came from a UK Government White Paper on Online Harms and the related Online Harms Bill, as well as recent literature. These harms can have a less clear definition and don’t fit the traditional perpetrator/victim model. They are more subtle and complex, for example, incomplete laws, responsibility for others (eg parents) and the unintended consequences technology can have. They almost always have multiple stakeholders involved which then cause complexities both in causing and reducing harm.



The ability to take action or to choose what action to take: The protest gave us a sense of agency, a sense of our own power to make a difference.

Cambridge dictionary

AGENCY is funded by UKRI/EPSRC in the programme: Protecting Citizens Online and is aligned with National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online (REPHRAIN).

The online world can be a useful tool, improving our lives by adding connectivity and access to large quantities of information on demand. At the same time, it also exposes us all to many threats which can cause us harm, both as individuals and as a society.

Research has shown that these harms come from complex social interactions driven by a wide range of stakeholders. Complex harms tend to happen to citizens; in most cases, they are not purposely caused or easily controlled by citizens.

The AGENCY project believes that establishing citizen agency is a requirement in order to reduce the impact of complex online harms. Citizens need to be empowered through technology and tools to help them gain a sense of control and security whilst online.

AGENCY aims to establish interdisciplinary co-design principles, technological foundations and collaborative governance principles to empower citizens to take agency online whilst satisfying multiple interests of different stakeholders.

Protecting against complex harms is a wicked problem because so many stakeholders are involved and because many harms are unintended consequences of the practical use and evolution of technology. Therefore, mitigating complex harms requires an interdisciplinary approach, combining computer science, design, business, psychology, sociology, legal and ethical experts. 

“The aim of AGENCY is to establish the required interdisciplinary scientific methods, techniques, technology and collaborative societal approaches to provide online agency to people in a world with complex online harms and demonstrate that this leads to reduction in complex online harm or in fear of such harm.”

If successful, AGENCY will provide a greater understanding of how agency can reduce complex online harms. It will deliver collaborative methods, technological building blocks and scientifically grounded best practices. In other words, methods to work between different areas of expertise, technology/software designed to help users gain agency and proven best practices to use going forward. This all allows for a more proactive and structured approach to protecting citizens online.

Complex online harm is a well-known problem and examples in the News are plenty, including fake news, hate speech and influencing elections.

Example headlines for online complex harms in the news


AGENCY is funded by UKRI/EPSRC in the programme: Protecting Citizens Online and is aligned with National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online (REPHRAIN). Announced by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on 14 October 2020, REPHRAIN explores how to keep people safe online while allowing them to fully participate in digital technologies and the contributions they make to an innovative, inclusive and healthy economy and society.