In a new report, the UK government’s draft Online Safety Bill has been criticised by MPs and significant changes recommended

What is it?

The Online Safety Bill follows a 2019 white paper titled Online Harms which proposed a series of regulations and codes of practice to deal with what it termed “online content or activity that harms individual users, particularly children, or threatens our way of life in the UK, either by undermining national security, or by reducing trust and undermining our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration”. The subsequent bill aims to introduce a duty of care for online platforms in which they will be obliged to take action against content which is legal but harmful or just plain illegal. This covers everything from child pornography and terrorist material to protections against cyber-bullying.

Obliged by who?

National communications regulator Ofcom will be empowered to police the subsequent act through application to the courts to block access to search engines or user-to-user services. It will also have the power to levy fines. The government views the proposed legislation as ground-breaking and claims it will make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.

Will it?

Eventually, maybe. The draft bill has been scrutinised by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee of the House of Commons and found wanting in several respects. Conservative MP Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS committee, had this to say: “In its current form what should be world-leading, landmark legislation instead represents a missed opportunity. The online safety bill neither protects freedom of expression, nor is it clear nor robust enough to tackle illegal and harmful online content. Urgency is required to ensure that some of the most pernicious forms of child sexual abuse do not evade detection because of a failure in the online safety law.” Campaigner Laura Lyons, founder of investigative agency Are They Safe, agrees that the bill isn’t robust enough as it stands. “I think there needs to be a lot more protection for victims of domestic abuse, sharing of personal photos, a lot more protection for women and girls,” she told Sky News. “We’re heading in the right direction but I think it falls short of quite a lot.”

So what next?

One suggestion by the committee is to “reframe” the definition of illegal content to include things like ‘breadcrumbing’, in which a series of digital ‘breadcrumbs’ can lead the way to illegal material, and so-called ‘deepfake’ pornography. It also wants the term ‘legal but harmful’ to be given more definition and for Ofcom’s role and powers to be strengthened further. Watch this cyber-space.