The Online Safety Bill has been approved to take action against harmful content on social media platforms.

A stock photo of a child and adult browsing onlineGetty Images

Peers have passed a controversial new law aimed at making social media firms more responsible for users’ safety on their platforms.

The process of reaching a consensus on the Online Safety Bill has been lengthy, and it will compel companies to eliminate illicit content while safeguarding children from certain lawful yet detrimental material.

The NSPCC, a charity focused on children, stated that the legislation would result in a more secure internet environment for users.

However, opponents claimed that it would grant a regulatory body and technology companies the power to control online speech.

The bill, which spans almost 300 pages, will also implement fresh regulations. For instance, it will mandate that pornography websites verify the ages of their users in order to prevent children from accessing explicit content.

Government officials have indicated that over 20,000 small businesses will need to adhere to the act, despite it being commonly discussed as a means to regulate Big Tech.

Platforms will also need to show they are committed to removing illegal content including:

  • child sexual abuse
  • controlling or coercive behaviour
  • extreme sexual violence
  • illegal immigration and people smuggling
  • promoting or facilitating suicide
  • promoting self-harm
  • animal cruelty
  • selling illegal drugs or weapons
  • terrorism

The bill has incorporated additional offenses such as cyber-flashing and the dissemination of “deepfake” pornography.

The legislation incorporates provisions that aim to simplify the process for grieving parents to access information about their children from technology companies.

Long journey

The process of turning the bill into law has been long and filled with disagreements, starting six years ago when the government made a commitment to enhancing internet safety.

Prof Lorna Woods from the University of Essex and William Perrin from the Carnegie UK foundation came up with a relatively simple idea for the bill, which they jotted down on the back of a sandwich packet.

“I cannot reword”

She mentioned that there is always a feeling of anticipation and excitement when you have been waiting for something for a long time, like saying, “Oh, it has finally arrived.”

However, she is worried that the intricacy of the action may lead to big tech companies challenging certain aspects of it in a legal setting.

“I believe that the complexity of the situation may contribute to such a challenge, potentially causing a delay in the complete implementation of the regime.”

The bill has been influenced by the accounts of individuals who have experienced negative consequences and damage that they believe is caused by content shared on social media platforms.

Ian Russell, an advocate for online safety, has expressed to the BBC that the effectiveness of the bill will be determined by its ability to prevent the exposure of harmful content, like the images that his daughter Molly encountered before tragically ending her own life. Molly had come across suicide and self-harm material on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.

The Open Rights Group, a digital rights advocacy organization, expressed concerns about the bill, stating that it presents a significant danger to freedom of expression. They highlighted the potential for tech companies to determine what content is lawful or not, leading to pre-publication censorship.

Graham Smith, a lawyer specializing in internet law and author of a book on the subject, expressed that although the bill had good intentions, it ultimately included numerous problematic aspects.

He informed the BBC that if the path to damnation is constructed using well-meaning motives, then this particular situation is comparable to a highway.

He described the legislation as “fundamentally flawed” and expressed concern that it could potentially restrict freedom of speech, which may become evident through legal proceedings.

And popular messaging services such as WhatsApp and Signal have threatened to refuse to comply with powers in the bill that would force them to examine the contents of encrypted messages for child abuse material.

Wikipedia has acknowledged its inability to meet certain provisions outlined in the bill.

Once the bill receives royal assent, the responsibility of enforcing it will primarily lie with Ofcom, the communications regulator.

It will draw up codes of conduct that will provide guidance on how to comply with the new rules.

Individuals who do not succeed may be subjected to significant penalties, reaching a maximum of £18m, or in certain instances, executives may even be imprisoned.

The bill’s success holds significant importance, not just for the safety of individuals of all ages, but also for the UK’s aspirations as a leading technology hub. Additionally, it may impact the country’s continued availability of widely used online services in case of any unfavorable outcomes.

Prof Woods will consider the bill successful if social media companies and other entities show increased responsiveness to user concerns.

“And perhaps we will be spared from encountering excessive amounts of undesirable content initially. However, I do not believe we should anticipate flawlessness. Life is inherently imperfect,” she expressed.

Related Topics

  • Online Safety Bill