The Government claims it has made the Internet safer for UK citizens – “delivering the most powerful child protection laws in a generation, while ensuring adults are better empowered to take control of their online lives” – with the Online Safety Bill set to become law.
The Bill dates back to the 2019 Online Harms White Paper, although it was not published as a draft until May 2021, and received its third reading yesterday. It is now awaiting Royal Assent to become law.
The law is designed to tackle a wide range of potentially harmful content, which may include online trolling, illegal pornography and underage access to legal pornography, and some forms of Internet fraud.
Ministers claim it will take a zero-tolerance approach to protecting children and makes sure social media platforms are held responsible for the content they host. If they 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. In some cases, their bosses may even face prison, the Government claims.
The Bill has undergone considerable Parliamentary scrutiny in both the Houses and ministers insist it has come out with stronger protections for all. However, plans to restrain the publication of “lawful but harmful” speech have been criticised, amid claims that this effectively creates a new form of censorship of otherwise legal speech.
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “The Online Safety Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation. 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.”
The main thrust of the law will force social media platforms to remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place, including content promoting self-harm.
They must also 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; and finally, provide parents and children with clear and accessible ways to report problems online when they do arise.
NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless commented: “We are absolutely delighted to see the Online Safety Bill being passed through Parliament. It is a momentous day for children and will finally result in the ground-breaking protections they should expect online.
“At the NSPCC, we hear from children about the completely unacceptable levels of abuse and harm they face online every day. That’s why we have campaigned strongly for change alongside brave survivors, families, young people and parliamentarians to ensure the legislation results in a much safer online world for children.”
In addition to its protections for children, the Bill empowers adults to take control of what they see online. It provides three layers of protection for internet users which will 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; and finally, offer users the option to filter out harmful content, such as bullying, that they do not want to see online.
If social media platforms do not comply with these rules, Ofcom could fine them up to £18m or 10% of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest – meaning fines handed down to the biggest platforms could reach billions of pounds.
New laws to decisively tackle online fraud and violence against women and girls have also been added to the Bill. The Government claims 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.
The change in laws will make it easier to charge abusers who share intimate images and put more offenders behind bars and better protect the public. Those found guilty of this base offence have a maximum penalty of 6 months in custody.
Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said: “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.
“While the Bill has been in progress, the Government has been working closely with Ofcom to ensure changes will be implemented as quickly as possible when it becomes law.”
The regulator said it will immediately begin work on tackling illegal content and protecting children’s safety, with its consultation process launching in the weeks after Royal Assent. It will then take a phased approach to bringing the Online Safety Bill’s into force.
Advertising and marketing industry bodies have yet to comment on the move.
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