Freedom of speech
Controversial measures that would have forced big technology platforms to take down ‘legal but harmful’ material have been removed from the Bill. Critics argued that the ‘legal but harmful’ provisions posed a risk to free speech. Adults will now be able to post and access anything legal, provided the technology company’s terms of service allow it. Companies will not be able to remove or restrict legal content, or suspend or ban a user, unless the circumstances for doing so are clearly set out in their terms of service or are against the law. If they do remove content or ban a user, they will have to offer an effective right of appeal. But a mechanism must be provided that allows adults who do not want to see legal content relating to, for example, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, or content that is abusive, to filter it out. The Government recognises that vulnerable adults could remain at risk of exposure to abhorrent content, so they have said they will make the encouragement of self-harm illegal by making it an offence to send communications that do this.
Protections for children
These have been strengthened. The Bill already required technology companies to stop those under 18 from seeing content that poses a risk of causing significant harm. Companies will now have to explain how they will check their users’ age using, for example, age-verification technology, and explain in their terms of service the measures they will use to enforce this. Companies will also have to publish summaries of their risk assessments for illegal content and material that is harmful to children, allowing users, especially parents, to understand the risks posed by their services. The Bill gave Ofcom, the communications regulator, the power to levy fines on companies of up to 10% of their global turnover for breaches in the law and to prosecute executives but only if they fail to cooperate with an investigation. During Parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill in January 2023, a group of Conservative MPs secured the Government’s agreement to strengthen these sanctions. Under the proposed changes, senior managers at technology firms will be criminally liable for repeated breaches of their duty of care to children and could face up to two years in jail. The Government is expected to target bosses who ignore enforcement notices from Ofcom in relation to breaches of their child safety duties. However, it is not expected to criminalise executives who have “acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way” with their duties. There could be other changes to the Bill as it continues through Parliament. Baroness Beeban Kidron has said she will bring forward amendments in the House of Lords that will require technology firms to supply data to bereaved parents about their child’s social media activity that could increase transparency by shedding light on their deaths.
Protections for women and girls
On top of the protections already in the Bill (explained below), companies will now have to tackle content relating to controlling and coercive behaviour. The sharing of people’s intimate images without their consent will also be criminalised and non-consensual “deepfake” pornography and “downblousing” will be made illegal. A previous law has already banned “upskirt” voyeurism. Separate to the Online Safety Bill, the Government will bring forward additional laws to tackle a range of abusive behaviour.
NCW has been voicing concerns about children’s exposure to online pornography for decades with Resolutions in 2007, 2012 and 2019. Following the reaffirmation of the 2019 Resolution at last year’s Annual Conference, NCW has written to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport calling on the Government to pass the Bill as swiftly as possible and with the strongest protections for children.
Published as the Online Harms White Paper in 2019, the draft Bill eventually reached Parliament in 2022 as the Online Safety Bill. It had got to the final stage of scrutiny in the Commons when it was put on hold after Boris Johnson resigned. The Bill returned to the Commons in December 2022 in amended form following concerns that it restricted the freedom of speech.
In brief, this highly complex Bill covers technology companies that allow users to post their own material online (such as images, videos, messages, comments) and interact with each other online. Companies must pro-actively remove illegal material (relating, for example, to terrorism and child abuse), protect children from harmful material (such as self-harm, eating disorders, bullying, suicide and mis/disinformation) and prevent children accessing pornography or violence. Companies must also remove illegal content directed at women and girls such as sexual images, including revenge and extreme pornography, harassment, cyberstalking and cyberflashing (to be made a criminal offense by the Bill). Women will have more power to decide who can communicate with them and what people can see, and companies must make improvements to the way women can report abuse and to the responses they receive.