Feelings run high on the subject of the UK’s draft Online Safety Bill – the proposed new law which aims to increase online safety and protect children and vulnerable individuals from harmful content on the internet. The bill has been slowly wending its way through UK parliament for several years and has passionate supporters – who argue it is too little, too late, and committed critics – who say it is deeply flawed and will harm free speech.
The bill followed an Online Harms White Paper, published in April 2019 with the White Paper itself the result of the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, published in October 2017. It was first proposed in 2019 by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office, released for public consultation in December 2019, with the results of the consultation published in April 2020. In December 2020, the bill was reintroduced to parliament and began its progress through the legislative process. The bill had its first reading in the House of Commons in January 2021 and was then referred to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee for further scrutiny. In March 2021, the committee published its report on the bill, which included a number of recommendations for changes to the legislation.
The bill has been met with both vigorous support and opposition from all political parties. Supporters argue that the legislation is necessary to protect children and vulnerable adults from harmful content and behaviour online, and that it will help to create a safer online environment. They also argue the bill will help to combat specific online harms such as cyberbullying, grooming, and hate speech. Opponents of the bill argue that, in its current format, it could lead to censorship and a restriction of free speech. They also argue it has become too broad, that its provisions are complex and difficult to interpret, and that there is a risk that the finalised legislation will not address the purpose originally envisaged. Those who hate the bill really hate the bill and want it scrapped completely and for the UK government to start all over again (the prospect of which is met with horror by those concerned primarily with children’s online safety).
I find myself in the latter camp. There’s no doubt that the legislation is flawed and that it’s trying to do a lot (possibly too much) but there’s also no doubt that the threat to children’s online safety has been growing more urgent with every year of its delay. The tragic case of Molly Russell being only one of a series of distressing recent reported cases. If we wait any longer we are in danger of completely failing a generation of children and vulnerable adults. Many will say we have failed them already.
Changes to the bill announced by the latest DCMS Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan, at the end of last year specifically attempted to assuage some of the freedom of speech concerns, to ensure the right balance was struck, the government said, “between protecting users from harmful content online and protecting users’ rights to freedom of expression”. In November 2022, the government announced plans to amend the bill, including the removal of the contentious ‘legal but harmful’ clause for adults, to protect freedom of expression.
At two committee sittings in December 2022 the new government clauses and amendments were made. Among other things, these removed safety duties for adults and introduced new ‘user empowerment tools’ for adults, so users will be able to control exactly what content they might see online. They also require the largest companies only to remove or restrict access to legal content where this is consistent with their terms of service.
Drafts of the UK Online Safety Bill have emphasised the role of the independent regulator, Ofcom, the communications watchdog, specifying that it will be responsible for ensuring that companies take action to protect children from harmful content and behaviour. It will also have the power to impose substantial fines on companies that fail to comply with the new regulations (see table below).
While the UK legislation has been torturously progressing, there have been similar attempts in the EU and US to address the issue of online safety, and some are now more advanced than others.
Online safety around the world
In the US, the closest legislation to the UK’s Online Safety Bill is the proposed SAFE TECH Act, which aims to address online harms and hold large tech companies accountable for the content on their platforms. The SAFE TECH Act has been read twice in the Senate and has now been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
In the EU, the comparable legislation is the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), both Acts between them aiming to promote online safety, fair competition, and the protection of personal data. In sharp contrast to the US and UK, both pieces of legislation are now enacted into law. (The DMA entered into force on 1 November 2022, and the DSA entered into force on 16 November 2022). The DSA and DMA are widely considered to be some of the most comprehensive and ambitious laws regulating the tech industry in the world.
The UK Online Safety Bill, US SAFE TECH Act and EU DSA and DMA Compared;
|UK Online Safety Bill||US SAFE TECH Act||EU DSA and DMA|
Establishes a duty of care for online companies to protect users from harmful content and behaviour.
|Addresses online harms and holds large tech companies accountable for the content on their platforms.||Promotes online safety, fair competition, and the protection of personal data.|
Includes a new regulatory framework to enforce the duty of care.
|Creates a new federal agency to enforce online safety regulations.||Establishes a new regulatory framework for online companies.|
Gives the regulator the power to impose significant fines on companies that fail to take action to remove harmful content.
|Allows the regulator to fine companies that fail to comply with online safety regulations.||Allows the regulator to impose fines on companies that fail to comply with the regulations.|
Covers social media platforms, file-hosting sites, and messaging services.
|Covers large tech companies, such as social media platforms, search engines, and e-commerce sites.||Covers digital platforms, including social media, search engines, and e-commerce sites.|
|Regulator: A new federal agency (name not specified yet)||Regulator: European Data Protection Board (EDPB)|
Penalties: Companies will be fined up to £18 million or 10 percent of their annual global turnover, whichever is greater.
|Penalties: Not specified yet||Penalties: 4% of the company’s global annual revenue or €10 million, whichever is higher.|
The UK’s Online Safety bill is now in the ‘report’ stage of the legislative process, about to move from the lower chamber, the House of Commons, to the Lords. It comes after a dramatic week in which rebel MPs forced a government U-turn on the issue of holding named Big Tech executives personally liable for breaches. A new provision has been confirmed which will target senior managers at tech platforms who ignore enforcement notices from Ofcom about breaches of the legislation’s child safety duties. They could face up to two years in jail under the new changes.
I’ve been writing about online safety on this site since 2018 (and before that for other publications) and I really despair this has all taken so long. Back in 2008 the NSPCC made a series of recommendations in the Byron Review Safer Children in a Digital World about how children urgently needed to be protected online. It’s beyond belief it has taken so long to address. In the UK, fourteen years after that report, children still go unprotected online. A testament surely to the overwhelming power Big Tech wields, and to the bottomless coffers they have at their disposal to lobby against anything that threatens them.
Read more on living safely in a digital world
If you want to read more from me on living with technology in 2023 and beyond, pick up a copy of my latest book.