The Online Safety Bill is back in the news after returning to parliament for debate, albeit with significant amendments from its previous iterations.
The bill – which has been around in one form or another for four years – is aimed at reducing online harms for all web users, but especially children and the vulnerable. In its current guise, the bill would remove illegal content (including sexual abuse or terrorism-related content) as well as that which is deemed ‘legal but harmful (such as cyberbullying or content promoting eating disorders).
It would also make companies more strongly enforce their age restrictions and use proper age-checking tools.
Any company found to be in breach of the regulations could be fined up to 10% of their global annual turnover or £18 million – whichever is higher. They may also be blocked from reaching the UK audience in future.
Crucially, these rules would not only apply to tech companies based within the UK, but any from across the world which target the UK market.
Supporters of the bill claim it will help keep people safer online, giving Ofcom much more power to gather the information it needs to effectively police the content that British consumers may be viewing.
Critics, on the other hand, claim it risks damaging free speech, with some of its measures undermining the end-to-end encryption that keeps online messages (such as those sent through WhatsApp) private.
Among those arguing against the bill was Conservative MP Adam Afriyie, who told the House of Commons: “We have to be careful about getting rid of all the benefits of secure end-to-end encryption for democracy, safety and protection from domestic abuse – all the good things that we want in society – on the basis of a tiny minority of very bad people who need to be caught.”
However, Afriyie’s fellow Tory MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Media Culture and Sport, Michelle Donelan, took a different view. In an open letter to parents, she wrote how the bill would “finally” hold social media giants to account and better protect children and young people. She also noted that the burden of responsibility would fall on the tech companies and not users.
The bill is currently at the Report stage, meaning it must go through a further third reading before it ascends to the House of Lords.