Online Safety Bill: plan to make social media sites take down ‘legal but harmful’ content axed

The original Online Safety Bill would have forced social media platforms to remove any material deemed as potentially harmful

Controversial measures that would have forced social media sites to take down material designated “legal but harmful” have been axed from the Online Safety Bill.

Critics of the section in the bill claimed it posed a risk to free speech and would have incentivised firms to over-censor content over fear of the sanction.

Under the original Bill’s plans, the biggest platforms would have been compelled to not only remove illegal content, but also any material which had been named in the legislation as potentially harmful.

The key requirements of the Bill are now being redefined and will require platforms to remove illegal content, as well as take down any material that is in breach of its own terms of service.

Instead of the legal but harmful duties, the changes mean there will now be a greater requirement for firms to provide adults with tools to hide certain content they do not wish to see. This includes types of content that do not meet the criminal threshold but could be harmful to see, such as the glorification of eating disorders, misogyny and some other forms of abuse. The government is calling it a “triple shield” approach to online protection which also allows for freedom of speech.

However, the amendment has been heavily criticised by the Labour Party and the head of the Samaritans which described the move as “a hugely backward step”. Julie Bentley, chief executive of Samaritans, said: “Of course children should have the strongest protection but the damaging impact that this type of content has doesn’t end on your 18th birthday.

“Increasing the controls that people have is no replacement for holding sites to account through the law and this feels very much like the government snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell described the amendment as a “major weakening” of the Bill, adding: “Replacing the prevention of harm with an emphasis on free speech undermines the very purpose of this Bill, and will embolden abusers, Covid deniers, hoaxers, who will feel encouraged to thrive online.”

The Government has dropped measures to ban “legal but harmful” web content (Photo: Adobe)

‘Unregulated social media must end’

The Online Safety Bill is due to return to Parliament next week after being repeatedly delayed.

Under the bill, social media companies could also face being fined by Ofcom up to 10% of annual turnover if they fail to fulfil policies to tackle racist or homophobic content on their platforms.

Updates to strengthen accountability and transparency will also be introduced to boost child online safety, which will require tech firms to publish summaries of risk assessments in regard to potential harm to children on their sites, show how they enforce user age limits and publish details of enforcement action taken against them by Ofcom. The updated rules will also prohibit a platform from removing a user or account unless they have clearly broken the site’s terms of service or the law.

Despite campaigners branding the changes a “watering down” of the Online Safety Bill that is “very hard to understand”, the Culture Secretary defended the move and said removing the restrictions marks a more “common sense” approach as they could have led to an “erosion of free speech”.

Michelle Donelan also argued that the axed measures had been an “anchor” holding the much-delayed Bill back. She said: “Unregulated social media has damaged our children for too long and it must end. I will bring a strengthened Online Safety Bill back to Parliament which will allow parents to see and act on the dangers sites pose to young people.

“It is also freed from any threat that tech firms or future governments could use the laws as a licence to censor legitimate views. Young people will be safeguarded, criminality stamped out and adults given control over what they see and engage with online. We now have a binary choice: to get these measures into law and improve things or squabble in the status quo and leave more young lives at risk.”

The latest changes come in the wake of other updates to the Bill, including criminalising the encouragement of self-harm and of “downblousing” and the sharing of pornographic deepfakes. The government also confirmed further amendments will be tabled shortly aimed at boosting protections for women and girls online.

In addition, the Victim’s Commissioner, Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Children’s Commissioner will be added as statutory consultees to the Bill, meaning that Ofcom must consult them with drafting new codes of conduct it will create that tech firms must follow in order to comply with the Bill.