Over the past 20 years, social media has become engrained in our day-to-day lives. It is undeniable that the digital sphere has brought immeasurable benefits and changes to each and every one of us. However, the online world can be a breeding ground for abusive behaviour, the spread of harmful content or disinformation, as well as the promotion of violence self-harm.

In recent years, there has been growing criticism of the ‘self-regulation’ basis on which internet companies are expected to keep their users safe. But because technology is constantly innovating, the legal frameworks that govern and regulate the influence of tech and social media over our lives are still playing catch-up. 

In April of 2019, the UK government published a white paper called ‘The Online Harms’. The paper argued that ‘existing regulatory and voluntary initiatives had “not gone far or fast enough” to keep users safe.’ Ultimately, it called for a consolidated ‘regulatory framework’ that would comprehensively address a broad spectrum of harms arising from the online world. 

As a result, earlier this year, the Government introduced the Online Safety Bill in parliament – the world’s ‘first online safety laws’.  Crucially, this bill will move away from a self-regulatory model, introducing a ‘duty of care’ for social media companies to their users. So what does this Bill mean and what will these laws look like? 

Online Safety Bills: Key Features 

The Online Safety Bill will introduce tougher criminal sanctions for tech bosses as wells new criminal offences for the falsification and destruction of data. Its overarching aim is to create and preserve a safe environment on the internet for all users, whilst ‘holding tech giants to account’,  and protecting freedom of speech. 

As we mentioned, the Bill will require firms to take a proactive approach to protecting their users. As such, though ‘previously the firms would have been forced to take [harmful] content down after it had been reported to them by users….. now they must be proactive and prevent people being exposed in the first place.’

Parliament will approve what kind of harmful content platforms must address. This will include criminal content such as online drug and weapons dealing, people smuggling, revenge porn, and promotion of suicide.

The Bill will empower the regulator Ofcom with the power to impose fines on non-compliant companies, up to the value of 10% of their global turnover. Executives of any companies that fail to cooperate with Ofcom’s request for information could face prosecution or jail time. 

Who will the Online Safety Bill affect? 

The laws introduced by the bill will cover any companies whose platforms or services ‘host user-generated content such as images, videos and comments…or which allow UK users to talk with other people online through messaging, comments and forums.’ It will extend to social media platforms, but also forums, messaging apps, online games, and search engines.

Critically, it will not matter where a company is based. Ofcom will still have the power to enforce the law and take appropriate action against non-compliant companies. 

Has the Online Safety Bill passed? 

The Bill is still in the initial stages of passage through Parliament. And it is not without its critics. There has been some opposition to the way that social media platforms will take on a duty of care to their users, with critics arguing that they shouldn’t need to take responsibility over what could be seen as a ‘public sphere’ online. 

The Online Safety Bill will change the face of social media regulation in the UK and beyond. It builds on and extensively strengthens existing laws, looking to create a safe environment for all users, whilst still trying to balance key concerns around freedom of speech. Only once it’s in action, however, will we see its real-life impact. 

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