UK parliament passes Online Safety Bill

19/09/2023 | UK Government

In a press release on Tuesday, 19 September, the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) announced that the Online Safety Bill (OSB) has passed its final Parliamentary debate and is now ready to become law. The OSB (soon to be known as the Online Safety Act) is anticipated to receive Royal Assent in October, after which it will become an Act of Parliament. 

The announcement marks four years since the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office published the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019. The government is calling the event a major milestone in child protection laws and empowering adults to take control of their online lives. 

The OSB will require social media platforms to protect children by:

  • Quickly removing illegal content or prevent it from appearing
  • Stopping children from being able to access harmful or age-inappropriate content
  • Enforcing age limits and implementing age-verification measures
  • Publishing risk assessment and be transparent about the risks and dangers to children online
  • Making it easy for parents and children to report problems

Adults will also receive increased protections, requiring social media platforms to: 

  • Remove illegal content
  • Enforce terms of service commitments
  • Include options to filter out harmful content, such as bullying

Violations of the OSB also could result in fines of up to £18 million or 10% of global annual revenue for non-compliance.

Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan said: "I am immensely proud of what we have achieved with this bill. Our common-sense approach will deliver a better future for British people, by making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online. It puts protecting children first, enabling us to catch keyboard criminals and crack down on the heinous crimes they seek to commit."

Legal analysis by the people at 11KBW Panopticon Blog highlights two key points about the OSB. The first is that, unlike current rules governing online intermediaries, the duties imposed under the OSB will require online intermediaries to proactively put in place measures to limit harmful content being hosted or indexed. The second point questions whether the regime may do more harm than good, despite its "laudable" intentions. 

In a statement responding to the news, James Baker, Campaigns Manager for the Open Rights Group, said: "No one disputes that tech companies could do more to keep children safe online but the Online Safety Bill is an overblown legislative mess that could seriously harm our security by removing privacy from internet users. The bill will also undermine the freedom of expression of many people in the UK."

Meanwhile, in a statement concerning the controversial provisions requiring technology companies operating messaging services to scan messages that use end-to-end encryption for child sexual abuse material (CSAM), digital rights campaign group the Electronic Frontier Foundation said: "Given the text of the law, neither the government's private statements to tech companies, nor its weak public assurances, are enough to protect the human rights of British people or internet users around the world."

Speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2023 conference earlier this week,  Meredith Whittaker, the president of the Signal Foundation, reiterated her previous threat that the Signal messaging app would leave the UK should the communications regulator Ofcom use the clause in the OSB to force technology companies to break the encryption. "We would leave the UK or any jurisdiction if it came down to the choice between backdooring our encryption and betraying the people who count on us for privacy, or leaving," Whittaker said.

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Child online safety

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