Since its initial proposal more than four years ago, the much-anticipated Online Safety Bill has this week (Tuesday 19 September) been approved by both Houses of Parliament and will, following receipt of Royal Assent, become law in the form of the Online Safety Act. If you want to read our previous commentary on the Bill, you can find it here.
The approval of the Bill marks a pivotal moment in the UK’s approach to online safety, particularly the safety of children. Indeed, the Bill is heralded as taking a “zero-tolerance” approach to keeping children safe by ensuring that social media, video game and other online platforms with user-to-user interactions are made directly responsible for the content they host, including via the imposition of hefty fines (of up to £18 million or 10% of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest) and imprisonment for those at the top.
In particular, online platforms will be required to:
- block the publishing of illegal content and remove it quickly when it does appear;
- enable age-checking measures to prevent children from accessing legal but harmful and age-inappropriate content;
- assess the risks and dangers posed to children on the largest social media platforms and publish risk assessments of the same; and
- provide clear and accessible ways for users to report concerns.
More generally, the Bill is intended to provide additional protections for all internet users by:
- requiring illegal content to be removed;
- making platforms responsible for enforcing their commitments to users through terms and conditions;
- offering users the option to filter out harmful content, such as bullying;
- requiring platforms to prevent users being exposed to online fraud by blocking and removing scams;
- criminalising (with a maximum penalty of 6 months in custody) the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, including deepfakes; and
- forcing platforms to prevent activity that facilitates animal cruelty and torture (even if the act takes place outside of the UK).
The new rules will be policed by Ofcom, who will take a phased approach to implementing the Bill.
Some social media platforms have already started to take action, with Snapchat removing the accounts of underage children and TikTok implementing increased age verification. However, other platforms, such as Meta and WhatsApp, have opposed provisions which they argue could force them to break end-to-end encryption. These provisions require platforms to scan content, including encrypted messages, in an effort to stop child abuse. The compatibility of scanning messages and encryption has been questioned by tech companies, leading to a concession by junior minister, Stephen Parkinson, that Ofcom would only require platforms to scan content where "technically feasible".
Video game companies are another industry that will be significantly affected. Any online multiplayer game featuring user-to-user content, such as text or voice chat, will be within scope and the publisher of the game will be liable for carrying out the age verification, take-downs, filtering and monitoring requirements. Implementing age assurance requirements, potentially from a third-party provider, will also be necessary in many cases. Many video game companies have been taking a wait-and-see approach, but will now have to act.
In light of the Bill’s approval this week, Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, commented, “Today, this government is taking an enormous step forward in our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”.
Protecting children online is a laudable aim; however, it remains to be seen if the Bill has the desired effect once it comes into force, likely in 2024. The EU might also lay claim to being the safest place in the world after its Digital Services Act comes into force in full in February 2024 with many similar and overlapping provisions. But there are also a number of differences, with the Online Safety Bill going further in many respects, for example, in applying to “legal, but harmful” content as well as illegal content. If you need any help in navigating the new UK or EU online safety regulations for your social media platform, video game or other online platform, please get in touch.
Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, commented, “Today, this government is taking an enormous step forward in our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”.