The UK Online Safety Bill completed its Parliamentary passage Tuesday and is now set to receive Royal Assent. After passing this last step, the bill, which introduces new strict requirements for social media platforms to remove particular content, will become law in the UK.
The Online Safety Bill was originally proposed over four years ago. It aims to “mitigate the impact of harm” to individuals and children online, by placing a legal responsibility on social media platforms to remove illegal and harmful content quickly, or to prevent it from ever being posted online in the first place. Platforms are also required to prevent children from accessing harmful and inappropriate content, enforce age limits and age checking measures, and ensure risks and dangers posed to children are more transparent. If platforms do not act in line with these legal requirements, they will face fines. Executives of social media companies bound by the bill could even face prison time. Some examples of “harmful” content includes, but is not limited to, material about child sexual abuse, material promoting self harm and material facilitating animal cruelty.
In addition to putting new pressure on social media platforms, the bill also provides parents and children with clear and accessible ways to report problems online when they do arise. Furthermore, the UK government claims the law will make it easier to charge abusers who share intimate images online, enabling government prosecutors to put more offenders in prison. Anyone convicted of this offense could face six months in custody.
However, other provisions in the bill have faced criticism. The bill grants power to communications regulator, Ofcom, to require platforms such as WhatsApp to use “accredited technology” to scan encrypted messages for illegal content. Some fear that this will weaken encryption and undermine people’s privacy. Commenting on the bill, Meredith Whittaker, president of Signal—an encrypted messaging service for instant messaging, voice, and video calls—stated that the company would “never undermine our privacy promises & the encryption they rely on.”
In a press release, the UK government claimed the Online Safety Bill will provide “the most powerful child protection laws in a generation, while ensuring adults are better empowered to take control of their online lives.” The government also claimed that, “[w]ithout this groundbreaking legislation, the safety of children across the country would be at stake and the internet would remain a wild west of content, putting children’s lives and mental health at risk.”
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan also commented on the soon to be legislation, in the following statement:
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.
A date for Royal Assent is yet to be scheduled.