On 17 March 2022 the new ‘world-leading’ Online Safety Bill was brought before Parliament. The bill is part of the UK government’s plan to make the UK the safest place to go online.
Currently, websites including social media platforms are responsible for identifying and removing harmful or criminal behaviour on their sites. With the new Online Safety Bill in place, it would be Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, telling the social media giants what content can and cannot be shown to British users.
But what actually is the Online Safety Bill, and how will it affect everyday internet users? We spoke to Dr Laura Higson-Bliss, a lecturer of law at Keele University, to find out everything you need to know about the new Online Safety Bill.
What is the Online Safety Bill?
The full title for the proposed legislation is ‘A bill to make provision for and in connection with the regulation by Ofcom of certain internet services; for and in connection with communications offences; and for connected purposes.’
According to the government, the bill was designed so that UK internet users could have a new, safer digital experience, one that protects children from harmful content, limits people’s exposure to illegal content, while still protecting freedom of speech. The bill is also said to hold tech giants to account with regards to activity on their sites.
“The bill is focused on companies and forcing them to react more quickly to content on their site that [is defined] as illegal or in some cases, legal but harmful. Failure by those companies to adhere to these new rules would result in fines or imprisonment in some cases,” explains Higson-Bliss.
“There are also provisions within the Online Safety Bill to change the criminal law in this area, in particular making cyber-flashing a specific criminal offence and making alterations to current communication offences.”
So, sending unsolicited nudes could be met with criminal charges, in case there was any doubt over what ‘cyber-flashing’ means.
How will the Online Safety Bill affect me?
The bill aims to tackle online criminal offences like cyber-flashing which, until now, have been a legal “grey area” according to Higson-Bliss, since they fall outside the usual definition of indecent exposure.
It also introduces new measures that allow internet users more control over who can contact them and what they see online, and requires all websites that publish or host pornography to verify their users are over 18. However, it’s currently unclear as to how porn sites will be expected to check the age of viewers.
“It also recommends creating a new communication offence for individuals that send harmful communications to another person,” says Higson-Bliss. This will cover sites and social media platforms, though it does not apply to things like emails, text and phone calls. But it is not yet clear whether social sites that have private messaging features will need to open up these inboxes to be checked for legal but harmful content.
Key to the new, safer internet the government is trying to establish is the identification and removal of illegal or so-called ‘legal but harmful’ content. Currently, the onus is on the platforms themselves to decide what meets these description, but the bill will put these definitions in the hands of Parliament.
The government says this change “removes any incentives or pressure for platforms to over-remove legal content or controversial comments”, putting MPs in charge of determining which statements fall under legal free speech and which need to be taken down.
All this means that what we see online may look different if the Online Safety Bill in its current form is been passed into law, with comments being removed and sites being hidden until users can verify their age.
Anyone who follows online influencers – people who make a career out of posting about products on social media – might notice an increase in the amount of paid-for promotions, not because there are more but because influencers that fail to declare they are being paid to promote products on social media could be subject to stronger penalties.
There should also be fewer scams to be found, as social media platforms and search engines will be legally required to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts appearing on their services.
Who decides what is ‘legal but harmful’ online?
The new bill is said to help “clear up the grey area around what constitutes legal but harmful”, however Higson-Bliss says she has concerns around giving Ofcom the power to govern what we say online.
An example of activity that could be deemed legal but harmful is content around the subject of self-harm.
“[The government] is saying that that sort of content would be legal but harmful and should be removed. But the issue there is, where do you draw the line? Mental health is an important topic and we shouldn’t be pushing conversations like this underground. You should be allowed to have frank and open conversations about mental health. So, if we’re now censoring that [by deeming it legal but harmful and removing it], are we actually going backwards rather than forwards with regards to mental health?”
Higson-Bliss says that currently, the legal but harmful definition is so broad, even material around things like gambling, or alcohol, could be argued to have a harmful element.
“We see gambling adverts on football all the time. Does it now mean we’re not allowed to put those adverts on social media, or even discuss them?“
How will the bill stop cyber-flashing?
In addition to changing what users can post on social media, and what content we will be allowed to see, there will also be specific criminal offences put into law to protect us from things like cyber-flashing – sending explicit images to another person without their consent.
Cyber-flashing can happen across social media sites or in private messaging, but has often been associated with people using Apple’s AirDrop feature to send images to strangers’ iPhones in the nearby area, says Higson-Bliss.
Read more about online activity:
The Online Safety Bill will introduce a new criminal offence that covers when a person intentionally sends or gives a photograph or film of a person’s genitalia to another person with the intent that the media will cause alarm, distress and/or humiliation.
“That [definition] is something that’s been quite heavily criticised at the moment, because if you’re sending that image for, let’s say, a joke, your intent is not necessarily going to fall under the definition of alarm, distress or humiliation.”
The bill will also make it a criminal offence to send or give such a photograph or film for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, if the person sending it knows or thinks the recipient will be caused alarm, distress or humiliation.
Does the new Online Safety Bill protect children?
Sites will now be assessed to determine whether it’s possible for children to access the content. Where children can access the site, there is a duty to “mitigate the impact of harm to children in different age groups presented by content that is harmful to children”, reads the bill.
The only way to show that a site is not able to be accessed by children is by putting something in place like age verification or another means of age assurance. This could involve asking users to upload their driving licence for proof of ID, or a credit card number.
Age verification for pornographic sites has been being discussed for a number of years, says Higson-Bliss, but the bill could argue that any site will need to put in measures to ensure children can’t access potentially harmful material.
What isn’t covered by the new legislation?
While the government has said the new bill protects freedom of speech, Higson-Bliss says the current draft could be putting freedom of expression “more under threat than before”.
“I think the only thing that’s missing is a balance between freedom of expression and privacy. The new provision of harmful communications that’s been put forward within the bill will make it an offence to send a communication which is harmful to another to a likely audience without reasonable excuse.”
Where the line is drawn, though, is unclear. What will be deemed a reasonable excuse?
Higson-Bliss does think that the current problems with the draft bill will be resolved before it is put into law.
When will it become law?
The bill is currently being considered before Parliament. It will be read several times by those in the House of Commons, and given to a committee of experts chosen to scrutinise the bill, before it is passed onto the House of Lords. Throughout the process, issues can be raised and alterations made.
Though the government have said they want to be able to enforce the bill before the end of this year, Higson-Bliss is sceptical it’ll happen that quickly.
“I don’t think it’s going to. In my personal opinion, I think it’s very complicated and there’s a lot to get your head around. There’s still a lot we don’t know.”
About our expert, Dr Laura Higson-Bliss
Dr Laura Higson-Bliss is a lecturer in law at Keele University. Her research spans a broad range of communication offences, particularly online abuse aided by social media.