September 20, 2023
The UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has announced the controversial Online Safety Bill has been signed off by the Houses of Parliament and will become law soon.
Having passed its final Parliamentary debate the government says the ‘bolstered’ bill will ‘make the UK the safest place in the world to be online by placing new duties on social media companies’.
The piece of legislation, which will be enforced by Ofcom, is pitched as a tool primarily to protect children from online harm and offer more control for adults, but its critics see it as threat to privacy.
By way of reiterating a core tenant of the bill’s remit, the announcement says that if social media platforms do not ‘act rapidly to prevent and remove illegal content and stop children seeing material that is harmful to them, such as bullying, they will face significant fines that could reach billions of pounds. In some cases, their bosses may even face prison.’
As a recap of the rules related to protecting children, social media platforms will be expected to:
– Remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place, including content promoting self-harm
– Prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content
– Enforce age limits and age-checking measures
– Ensure the risks and dangers posed to children on the largest social media platforms are more transparent, including by publishing risk assessments
– Provide parents and children with clear and accessible ways to report problems online when they do arise
But it’s not just a child safety measure. The bill also details ‘three layers of protection’ for adults, namely:
– Make sure illegal content will have to be removed
– Place a legal responsibility on social media platforms to enforce the promises they make to users when they sign up, through terms and conditions
– Offer users the option to filter out harmful content, such as bullying, that they do not want to see online
In addition the bill contains new laws to ‘decisively tackle online fraud and violence against women and girls.’ These will apparently make it will be easier to convict someone ‘who shares intimate images without consent and new laws will further criminalise the non-consensual sharing of intimate deepfakes.’ In regards to fraud social media platforms will have to stop users ‘being exposed to dangerous fraudulent adverts by blocking and removing scams, or face Ofcom’s huge new fines.’
It will also force social media firms to ‘prevent activity that facilitates animal cruelty and torture’ Even if this takes place outside the UK but is seen by users here, companies will be forced to take it down.
“The Online Safety Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation,” said Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan. “Today, this government is taking an enormous step forward in our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
“I am immensely proud of what we have achieved with this bill. Our common-sense approach will deliver a better future for British people, by making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online. It puts protecting children first, enabling us to catch keyboard criminals and crack down on the heinous crimes they seek to commit. I am deeply thankful to the tireless campaigning and efforts of parliamentarians, survivors of abuse and charities who have all worked relentlessly to get this bill to the finish line.”
Ofcom Chief Executive, Dame Melanie Dawes added: “Today is a major milestone in the mission to create a safer life online for children and adults in the UK. Everyone at Ofcom feels privileged to be entrusted with this important role, and we’re ready to start implementing these new laws.
“Very soon after the bill receives Royal Assent, we’ll consult on the first set of standards that we’ll expect tech firms to meet in tackling illegal online harms, including child sexual exploitation, fraud and terrorism.”
The broad stated aims of protecting people from online harm have remained largely consistent despite a fair amount of tweaks, and in the case of protecting children at least the intention is understandable. But the opposition to the bill cites a number of potential issues, not least of which is the sometimes vague nature of the language employed – ideally if there’s billions of pounds in fines and prison time on the table you don’t want the rules to be in any way ambiguous.
The very first line of the list of things social media firms will be expected to do includes one such example, referencing a requirement to not only remove illegal content but prevent it from appearing in the first place. It doesn’t seem obvious how firms like Twitter and Instagram could swoop in and prevent anything from being posted before the event. And perhaps that’s not what those writing these rules had in mind exactly – but it can be read that way which is the point.
Other issues have been flagged as the legislation has rolled along and morphed into its various iterations, such as free speech, the consequences of creating backdoors into encryption, and removing the ability for people to use platforms anonymously. And while there appears to be a change in emphasis towards illegal content as opposed to ‘legal but harmful’, the word harmful, which is open to interpretation depending on who is asking, is still being used liberally in this latest bit of comms.
Leaving aside the details, the spirit of the opposition could always be summed up with a question – who decides what’s harmful?
In the UK, the answer is now ‘Ofcom does.’
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