Since 2019 in the making, the UK online safety bill is to be sent for royal assent after passing its final parliamentary hurdle. The legislation will compel social media firms to remove harmful content and allow Ofcom to monitor encrypted messages. Internet giants, including WhatsApp and Apple, vehemently oppose the legislation as it may see them receive fines of up to £18 million. They have cited privacy violations as the main reason for their objections, stating it will put human rights activists, investigative journalists, and others at risk. But the government has hailed the legislation as a game changer, saying it would make Britain “the safest place in the world to be online.”
The white paper was originally published in 2019. Since then, the flagship legislation has travelled a rocky road, with opponents rallying against perceived privacy and freedom of speech violations. The most controversial aspect of the UK online safety bill is its provision to allow Ofcom to check encrypted messages. The law forces companies like Apple and Meta to eliminate any harmful content. Platforms will now be held liable for publishing illegal content like weapon and drug promotions and child pornography. Bullying content or materials related to self-harm or suicide will also be unlawful, as is cyber flashing. Anyone publishing content relating to sexual exploitation, revenge porn, terrorism activity, scams, and hate speech will now also face prosecution. Social media companies and chiefs facilitating publication will be held liable and may face hefty fines or even imprisonment.
From the beginning, opponents have felt that the legislation goes too far, with even some Tory MPs fearing freedom of expression curtailment. The current technology secretary, Michelle Donelan, made some changes to quieten Tory ranks without watering down the legislation. Speaking to reporters, she said:
“The Online Safety Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation. 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.”
Long overdue legislation hailed by many as significant
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and charities like the NSPCC are among the many supporters of the legislation. Both organisations recently reported alarming levels of child grooming and exploitation. Four out of five Britons have expressed support for the government’s tough stance, including placing some of the onus for protecting children on the shoulders of social media giants.
NSPCC Chief Executive Sir Peter Wanless said:
“We are absolutely delighted to see the Online Safety Bill being passed through Parliament. It is a momentous day for children and will finally result in the ground-breaking protections they should expect online.
“At the NSPCC, we hear from children about the completely unacceptable levels of abuse and harm they face online every day. That’s why we have campaigned strongly for change alongside brave survivors, families, young people and parliamentarians to ensure the legislation results in a much safer online world for children.”
Tech giants non too pleased with UK online safety bill
Threatening to leave the UK if the legislation comes into force, Meta and Apple opposed it every step of the way. Much of their opposition centres around the private messaging encryption the companies have prided themselves on. Once the legislation becomes law, Ofcom can access private messages and scan them for harmful content. An Apple spokesperson said:
“End-to-end encryption is a critical capability that protects the privacy of journalists, human rights activists and diplomats.
“It also helps everyday citizens defend themselves from surveillance, identity theft, fraud and data breaches. The Online Safety Bill poses a serious threat to this protection and could put UK citizens at greater risk.”
Making tech companies arbiters of harmful content problematic
While most people welcome the tough new laws, a growing number of commentators fear that charging social media giants with distinguishing between allowable and unallowable content is a recipe for disaster. They fear big tech censorship, pointing out that government agencies ought to assess content instead.
On X, the Free Speech Union tweeted:
“We’re disappointed the Online Safety Bill has been passed. But thanks to us and other free speech advocacy groups, it’s a slight improvement on earlier versions:
* The obligation on social media companies to remove “legal but harmful” content has been removed.
* The new Harmful Communications Offence, which could have seen people jailed for two years for posts that caused “serious distress”, has gone.
* The duty imposed on social media companies to “have regard” for freedom of expression has been bumped up to “have particular regard”.