UK lawmakers call for strengthened Online Safety Bill

Similar to the EU’s Digital Services Act, the draft bill is intended to regulate online service providers. [Shutterstock / Kostenko Maxim]

Binding codes of practice, measures to keep children from accessing pornography, and new criminal offences related to the online world are needed to strengthen the UK’s proposed Online Safety Bill, according to a parliamentary committee.

Following five months of review and a report on the proposed legislation, the Joint Committee issued a set of recommendations on the Draft Online Safety Bill on Tuesday (14 December). They aim to improve the bill that the committee describes as a “key step forward for democratic societies to bring accountability and responsibility to the internet.” 

Like the EU’s Digital Services Act, the draft bill is intended to regulate online service providers, clearly defining standards by which they must organise themselves and implement greater accountability and transparency measures. 

The committee’s review process resulted in four key recommendations for strengthening the bill: online regulation of that which is illegal offline; the implementation of binding codes of practice by the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom; the introduction of new criminal offences to make certain behaviours illegal online; and the introduction of additional child safety provisions.

“The Committee were unanimous in their conclusion that we need to call time on the Wild West online”, said the committee’s chair Damian Collins. 

“For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless. A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and in some cases even loss of life,” he added.

Recommendations 

The committee notes that in establishing what should be regulated online, actions that are illegal offline should be considered. It recommends the introduction of several new criminal offences when it comes to misogynistic and racist abuse, cyber-flashing, and hate directed towards LGBTQ+ and disabled people. 

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While the bill sets out criminal liability for senior managers within online platforms in the case of compliance failures, the committee recommends further steps to enforce accountability throughout companies.

Among them is the recommended designation of a high-level “Safety Controller” within each company, who would be liable for prosecution should they fail to address “repeated and systemic failings that result in a significant risk of serious harm to users.” 

The bill also currently includes several Codes of Practice, which cover the steps that online service providers can take to ensure compliance in areas such as terrorism, freedom of speech, transparency reporting and age assurance.

These Codes, however, are not binding in the same way as the bill’s “safety duties”, meaning platforms could take alternative routes to compliance, which would then have to be assessed by Ofcom. To avoid this, the committee recommends that the bill be amended to make these Codes binding. 

“The era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end”, said Collins at the report’s release. “The companies are clearly responsible for services they have designed and profit from, and need to be held to account for the decisions they make.”

Child safety 

Child safety is a particular focus of the bill, with one of the key objectives being “to ensure a higher level of protection for children than adults.” 

In particular, the committee recommends a broad scope for defining what is deemed harmful to children. It should also align with the Age Appropriate Design Code, UK legislation that establishes standards to be followed by any online service  “likely to be accessed by children.” 

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The committee’s report notes that such an alignment would ensure that all pornographic websites prevent children from gaining access to them, reducing the risk of coming across extreme and harmful content. 

I particularly welcome the report’s recommendation to take a child rights approach to child safety online,” professor Sonia Livingstone, an expert on children’s rights and safety online at the London School of Economics, told EURACTIV

“This recognises the full range of risks of harm that the internet affords, seeks to shift the burden involved in mitigating harms from vulnerable groups to the businesses with the resources and expertise to prevent or remedy them, and brings a balanced approach to children’s protection and participation through the concept of “best interests.”

Following the report’s publication, the government now has a two-month window to respond to the committee’s recommendations.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]

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