The Online Safety Bill is finally back in Parliament, with members of the House of Lords set to scrutinise the proposed new legislation.
The purpose of the bill, according to the government, is to keep children safer online and protect them from encountering dangerous content. This will be done by placing greater safeguarding responsibilities on social media companies, who will be tasked with removing harmful content from their sites and introducing stricter age verification technologies to prevent children entering unsafe spaces online.
Recently, the legislation has faced backlash from social media companies such as Whatsapp and Signal, who have argued that it will impact people’s privacy online by weakening end-to-end encryption - a tool which means a message can only be read on the sender and the recipient’s app. Whatsapp head Will Cathcart said that this could leave people vulnerable to hacking, and even warned Whatsapp could end up banned in the UK as he would refuse to fulfil the requirements of the bill.
Ministers, who are pushing for platforms to monitor users to root out child abuse images, have argued it is possible to have both privacy and child safety. “We support strong encryption,” a government official said, “but this cannot come at the cost of public safety.”
The National Crime Agency (NCA), which told NationalWorld that the sexual exploitation of children in online spaces “is increasing in scale, severity and complexity”, with the industry “detecting and reporting an increasing number of illegal images”, took a similar view. It insisted that “privacy and child safety can co-exist”, saying it is yet to see the “commitment”, “action”, and “big shift” needed from the social media industry when it comes to tackling online threats to children.
Another aspect of the Online Safety Bill which has made headlines is the prospect of social media bosses facing up to two years in prison if they fail to fulfil their new safeguarding duties. Under the bill, senior managers at tech firms will face criminal convictions if they breach duties to keep children safe online, which will include protecting under 18s from content which promotes self-harm or eating disorders.
The government is also expected to target bosses who ignore enforcement notices from Ofcom, the media regulator, which is set to gain wide-ranging powers to police the internet under the new legislation. However, executives who are deemed to have “acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way” with their duties will not be criminalised.
The legislation will now continue to make its way through Parliament, with it currently at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. But what exactly is the Online Safety Bill, what changes have been made, and what backlash has it faced? Here’s everything you need to know about the bill.
What is the Online Safety Bill?
The Online Safety Bill was introduced in March under Boris Johnson, alongside then-Home Secretary Priti Patel. Its aim is to target harmful online content, with the hope of better protecting children using the Internet. This includes preventing access to adult sites and making social media bosses have a legal duty of care to protect young people from issues such as cyber bullying.
It will be far reaching for online businesses and services, including social media sites and ecommerce marketplaces. Organisations which fail to protect its users, even from user-generated content, will be scrutinised by regulator Ofcom and could face fines or possible prison time for any breaches.
The bill was introduced in the wake of the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing self-harm content online. Her family has since campaigned for greater online safety.
Why is it controversial?
Although charities and online safety companies have argued that the new bill will take some long-needed new steps to better protect children using the Internet, there are some people who have concerns over privacy - such as what impacts the legislation will have on end-to-end encryption systems.
Discussing this matter, Whatsapp boss Mr Cathcart described the bill as the most “concerning piece of legislation currently being discussed in the western world”, and also raised concerns about people’s freedom online, remarking: “I don’t know that people want to live in a world where to communicate privately to someone it has to be illegal.”
The bill has also been at the centre of a debate over free speech, censorship, and the necessity to police harmful content on the Internet. This has focused on the so-called (and now scrapped) “legal but harmful” duties that were originally in the bill, which would have required the biggest platforms to ensure their users, and in particular children, are not exposed to harmful content - even if it was not illegal.
The government dropped measures to ban “legal but harmful” web content, meaning social media companies can give users tools to filter out potentially harmful but legal content, but they are not responsible for removing it. Ministers said strong protections remain in place for children, with sites required to show how they enforce age limits, publish summaries of risk assessments in regard to potential harm to children on their sites, and declare details of enforcement action taken against them by Ofcom.
Secretary of State for Science, Innovation, and Technology Michelle Donelan argued that removing the restrictions marks a more “common-sense” approach as they risked an “erosion of free speech”. She also said the axed measures had been an “anchor” stalling the bill, and that it should progress more quickly now.
However, campaigners called the scrapping of the “legal but harmful” clause a “watering down” of the Online Safety Bill - and one that is “very hard to understand”. Labour also warned that not being tougher on “legal but harmful” internet content could lead to greater spread of “abhorrent comments”, like those made by rapper Ye - formerly Kanye West.
Shadow culture minister Alex Davies-Jones said: “Let’s be clear, everything that Kanye West said online is completely abhorrent and has no place in our society. It is not for any of us to glorify Hitler and praise him for the work that he did. It is absolutely abhorrent and should never be online, but sadly that is exactly the type of legal but harmful content that will now be allowed to proliferate online because of the government’s swathes of changes to this bill, meaning that will be allowed to be seen by everybody.
“Thirty million followers Kanye West has online. His followers will be able to share that content, research that content, look at that content, glorify that content without absolutely any recourse to that content being freely available online.”
What has Molly Russell’s family said?
Molly Russell’s father, Ian Russell, who has campaigned for online safety since her death, also called the government’s decision to not legislate against “legal but harmful” material a “watering down” of the legislation. He said young people who are “likely to find a way around” age verification checks may still be exposed to “legal but harmful” material, and that this is “the type of content that sapped the life force out of Molly and that stopped her wanting to live any more.”
Despite his concerns however, Mr Russell said what is “most important now is that the bill continues to progress at pace so that it is passed into law next year.” He added: “This is vital as it could quite literally save lives.”
What are the new changes?
The most recent change to the Online Safety Bill was the addition of a new clause which will “make it an offence for the provider of a user-to-service not to comply with the safety duties protecting children”, as set out in the draft law. Tech bosses will also be held liable for failing to give information to the watchdog, Ofcom.
These changes will be implemented in addition to regulations already decided upon, such as the requirement for social media companies to remove illegal material from their platforms- with a particular emphasis on protecting children from seeing harmful content.
It is yet to be seen whether any changes will be made to guidance around encryption, following the backlash from social media companies.
What stage is the bill at in Parliament?
The bill has been frequently altered during its passage through Parliament, meaning its progress has been repeatedly delayed. One such example of this was the removal of the ‘legal but harmful’ argument.
Some have started to lose patience, with MPs such as Julian Knight, Conservative chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, urging MPs to support the bill as it is because “frankly, after five years, I have had enough”.
He said: “I just want to urge honourable members and right honourable members from all sides of the House just to think in these terms: that this is far from perfect legislation. Legal but harmful – it is a shame that we haven’t found a way to work through this. But at the same time, we do have to understand the parameters we work in in the real world with these companies.”
The Online Safety Bill is currently at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords, where Donelan said she will work with backbenchers to develop their amendment into a “more workable format”. Some are concerned however that the legislation could see more delays, particularly with an increasing debate around privacy and encryption.