For several years now, the British government has been debating new legislation to make the internet safer for citizens. Known as the Online Safety Bill (OSB), this new law promises to update existing statutes to better regulate new websites and apps. The oversight process has been long and contentious, with many ideas being added and removed along the way.
So what is the current state of play?
“Legal but harmful” designation has been removed
One of the most controversial aspects of the original bill was the proposal to outlaw content that was ‘legal but harmful’. However, the clause did not specify what constitutes ‘harmful content’. In fact, the original text was so vague that many civil liberties groups warned that the law would be used to curtail free speech online as service providers would be compelled to remove content without any evidence that it caused offence.
A government review of this proposal has since decided that the clause is incompatible with existing law (and possible unenforceable) so it has been dropped.
Criminal liability for failing to protect children
One of the key aims of the Online Safety Bill is to better protect children as they use the internet. And one of the latest updates is set to further strengthen protections. Should the bill become law, executive officers of big tech being prosecuted personally for breaching their duty of care to children. Essentially, CEOs of popular online platforms could be fined, or even jailed, if minors are exposed to age-restricted or illegal content.
‘Deepfakes’ will be outlawed
The OSB will introduce a new ban on creating and sharing deepfake images – pornographic pictures that have been edited with another person’s face or distinguishing features.
Self-harm content may be criminalized
Following concerns about the role of social media in several high-profile teen suicides, there are moves to outlaw self-harm related content. Under this proposal, internet firms will be legally obliged to identify and remove posts and videos that encourage suicide or self-harm.
End-to-end encryption could be banned
Following concerns about encrypted messaging could be used to share illegal or criminal content, the UK government is still debating a ban on end-to-end encryption. This could see tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google being forced to provide increased access to private messaging services – or even a total ban on this type of encryption.
OSB implementation to be accelerated
The OSB has been under development for so long that lawmakers are keen it is implemented as quickly as possible once passed. Originally internet firms were to be given 22 months to make the necessary changes to ensure their services will be compliant. However, the text of the proposed bill has again changed and they will now have just two months to bring their operations into line.
Big changes ahead
The OSB is almost certain to undergo further revisions before it finally becomes law in the UK – but whatever happens, there are set to big changes for British internet users. It is highly likely that firms will take an over-cautious approach, automatically blocking and removing perfectly legal content to avoid any potential issues in future. It will be interesting to see how this situation develops – and whether any other countries follow Britain’s lead.