104: Public Law: Online Safety Bill still downloading
Now the small matter of who the Prime Minister is has been decided, one of the items vying for Liz Truss’s attention in a busy autumn will be the Online Safety Bill (the Bill). The Bill had been due for a final round of debate in July, but once the leadership contest got underway it fell off the parliamentary agenda.
What stage is the Bill at?
The Bill was published in May 2021 (and covered by us here). It has been detained at report stage, where amendments from the government may be made (the Bill could now be steered in a certain direction by the new PM or indeed Michelle Donelan, the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture Media and Sport). After that the Bill will return to the Commons for one more reading, and then go on to the House Of Lords.
Why is it important?
The much debated, much delayed, draft legislation is still attracting criticism, both from those who say it will not do enough to protect the safety of children online and from those who claim it will stifle free speech. At the end of last month, Lord Sumption took to The Spectator to argue it will usher in ‘an intrusive culture of self-censorship’. The Times, too, called for the Bill to be dropped and for work on legislation appropriate for internet regulation to start again from scratch. Doing so would not go down well with children’s safety campaign groups who urged both Tory Party leadership candidates over the summer not to water down the Bill and warned that delay will continue to expose young people to online dangers and abuse. The NSPCC have said that for every month the Bill is delayed there will be 3,500 more online child abuse crimes.
What to look out for
The most controversial element of the Bill is the imposition on service providers of a new duty to moderate content which is ‘legal but harmful’. Some argue this gives online platforms too much power to decide what falls into this category, that there will be a lack of nuance in assessing such content, and that service providers will be overly cautious, taking down content down for fear of punitive measures from the regulator, Ofcom.
The Bill also requires age verification for services providing pornographic content: this would be a win for child safety campaigners, but others fear such a step would erode privacy.
Ofcom, the regulator appointed by the Bill, has taken steps over the summer recess, in anticipation of the Bill passing in early 2023 and its powers coming into force two months later. Ofcom published its ‘Roadmap to Regulation’ in July and has started recruitment in order to fulfil its much expanded remit. It also opened a call for evidence which ends on 13 September to business and providers whose services are likely to fall within the scope of the online safety framework in order to, ‘strengthen [Ofcom’s] understanding of the range of approaches and techniques platforms [they] can employ to help them meet their proposed duties under the Online Safety Bill.’
We will provide further updates on the Bill as it progresses through Parliament.