Online Safety Bill reaches Parliament – but what does it mean?

Online behaviour will be brought into sharp focus in the coming days as the government is about to lay out the much anticipated Online Safety Bill in Parliament.

It will have relevance for all of us who have technology and access the internet when it (or a further debated and amended form of it) eventually passes, as it is likely to change the face of being online in some positive ways.

The legislation aims to tighten up regulation, and parts of it amount to a legal requirement for online companies and social media networks to adhere to a much more proactive ’duty of care’. This is intended to deal with harmful online activity and content including perennial issues such as cyber-bullying (including trolling) and pornography.

The Bill will ensure that social media networks do more to tackle the online behaviour of those who use their services. The companies risk being fined up to 10% of turnover or blocked altogether if they do not tackle the problem of harmful content.

They will be required to do more to assess risks for adults which could arise through their services. These risks will be set out in further legislation, but could include things like the promotion of self-harm, eating disorders or harassment.

The companies will be required to detail how they will deal with each of these things if they occur – and be expected to enforce their stated terms.

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Firms to be held to account in Online Safety Bill

Those in charge of the networks could be imprisoned if they do not ensure the businesses comply with the Online Safety Bill and related legislation or, in the event of an investigation, if they obstruct Ofcom regulation by failing to provide requested information, destroying evidence, not attending an Ofcom interview, or providing false information.

“Tech firms have not been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platform,” commented Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, and added that the Bill will ensure tech firms aren’t simply able to “check their own homework” and circumnavigate problems arising from issues surrounding use of their platforms.

A joint committee including members of the House Of Commons and the House Of Lords scrutinised draft versions of the Bill in 2021, and added further recommendations to it, including:

  • All porn sites should have formal processes to stop the underage from gaining access
  • Tech firms should appoint an online safety controller
  • Scams and frauds should be part of the Bill
  • The Bill should also cover the “potential harmful impact of algorithms”
  • Social media platforms should have a legal duty to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts

A new range of criminal offences was suggested by The Law Commission, and it includes:

  • Promoting or inciting misogyny and violence against women, or violence based on gender or disability
  • Distributing seriously harmful misinformation
  • Cyber-flashing – ie. the transmission of unwanted naked images through social media platforms

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Online Safety Bill should inspire individual responsibility

There’s no doubting that the internet needs to be ‘cleaned up’ in some way. The likelihood of being on the receiving end of something negative is quite high due to the ubiquity of social media platforms. There is no doubt that the Online Safety Bill is a serious move to make those platforms culpable in various ways.

But, in the ‘grown up world’ we’d all like to live in, a further very important part of creating a safer place for all is individual responsibility – each one of us making the effort to ‘do the right thing’ – or at the very least not do the wrong thing. So, at the point of origin, it’s simple. Think. Take a moment before you post something or message someone, and consider whether what you are saying, doing or sending is appropriate or legal. It’s a tough world out there. Be kind.

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