UK’s divisive Online Safety Bill becomes the Online Safety Act

  • The UK government has now signed the Online Safety Act into law, giving it greater control over how platforms operate online in the region.
  • The provisions in the Act are set to come into play two months from now, under a three-phased approach.
  • The first phase will target the publishing of illegal content online.

For a few years now the UK government has pushed to get the Online Safety Bill signed into law. Today, that happened as the Bill has now become the Online Safety Act.

The tenets of the Act specifically focus on children, aiming to make the internet a safer place for that demographic in particular. It also gives the government a fairly wide-ranging set of powers in order to enforce and fine platforms that do not comply.

“The new laws take a zero-tolerance approach to protecting children from online harm, while empowering adults with more choices over what they see online. This follows rigorous scrutiny and extensive debate within both the House of Commons and the House of Lords,” the UK government explained in a press release.

At this stage, the elements of the Act are only set to come into play two months from now, and even then all the aspects contained within will not be fully implemented. This is, as The Verge points out, because the organisation tasked with enforcing the Act will be taking a three-phased approach.

To that end, UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom, will be focusing on the uploading of illegal content online during the first phase, addressing sexually explicit material involving children, and terrorism, as examples.

This step will require a draft to be put together, with it said to be published within the next 100 days.

“The Act places legal responsibility on tech companies to prevent and rapidly remove illegal content, like terrorism and revenge pornography. They will also have to stop children seeing material that is harmful to them such as bullying, content promoting self-harm and eating disorders, and pornography,” the UK government continued.

“If they fail to comply with the rules, they will face significant fines that could reach billions of pounds, and if they don’t take steps required by Ofcom to protect children, their bosses could even face prison,” it added.

While the first fines are yet to be handed out, they could prove steep, as the Act allows for up to £18 million fines to be issued, or fines totalling 10 percent of an organisation’s global annual turnover. This could prove potentially crippling for a company like Google and Facebook, which own a myriad platforms, all of which would be beholden to the rules contained within the Act.

On this front, platforms operating online will need to ensure that they:

  • “remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place, including content promoting self-harm
  • prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content including pornographic content, content that promotes, encourages or provides instructions for suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, content depicting or encouraging serious violence or bullying content
  • enforce age limits and use age-checking measures on platforms where content harmful to children is published
  • ensure social media platforms are more transparent about the risks and dangers posed to children on their sites, including by publishing risk assessments
  • provide parents and children with clear and accessible ways to report problems online when they do arise.”

As for why this Act has proved divisive since it was first outlined, many companies are uncertain what impact it will have on their ability to operate or offer the services that customers have come to expect.

In the case of instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal, the end-to-end encryption on offer would be compromised if Ofcom were to enforce the disclosing of messages that may contain explicit material with children.

Sites like Wikipedia would also be impacted by the Act, as it captures minimal data about its users, such as their ages, which is against the law under the Online Safety Act.

While the Act is indeed focused on online safety, specifically when it comes to children, the powers it grants the UK government could be seen as overreaching depending on how it is implemented.

With a couple of months to go before elements of the Act start to be enforced, it will be interesting to see how larger tech companies react in response.

[Image – Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash]


About Author


Related News