The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Online Safety Bill Becomes Law

Finally, after six long years, the Online Safety Bill is ready for Royal Assent.  It was first mooted as the “Online Harms” White Paper (in 2019) with the Government committing to “make Britain the safest place to be online, particularly for children”.

It has been and remains controversial: with child protection agencies demanding that the welfare of children be paramount, but advocates of free speech and personal privacy are concerned the legislation will cause social media services to be over-cautious in the removal of content deemed “legal but harmful” and gain access to personal messages in end-to-end encrypted services to search for evidence.

The arrival of Michelle Donelan as Digital Minister has driven the Act along, partly through compromise.  Last November she removed the “legal but harmful” clauses in the Bill, citing freedom of expression as the reasoning. And when faced with the likes of WhatsApp threatening to withdraw from the UK, the government pulled back somewhat on scanning encrypted messages. Though the power remains within the bill, there is acceptance that the technology does not yet exist to achieve this without invading privacy more broadly.

At nearly 300 pages the bill at one point was likened to a Christmas tree covered in baubles, covering every possible aspect of online harm: from child sexual abuse to people smuggling, to animal cruelty.  The complexity of the act does raise concerns.  Parts of it are likely to be challenged in court.

However, now in her role as Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan - who took on the Bill when the DCMS lost its digital remit - says tech firms have already begun changing their behaviour: “As soon as this bill gains Royal Assent, the regulator will be working even more hand in hand with those social media platforms and you’ll see them changing the way they’re operating.”

Once the imminent Royal Assent is given, the responsibility to uphold the law passes from the government to Ofcom.  Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s Chief Executive has said that “very soon after the Bill receives Royal Assent, we’ll consult on the first set of standards that we’ll expect tech firms to meet in tacking illegal online harms, including child sexual exploitation, fraud and terrorism.”

To read more about how Ofcom will regulate online safety, click here

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)