Online Safety Bill: New offences and tighter rules

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A girl in distress sitting in front of her laptopImage source, Getty Images
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The draft bill aims to protect children online but is wide-ranging in scope

New criminal offences and major changes have been proposed in the UK's landmark Online Safety Bill, which seeks to regulate social media and tech giants.

A new parliamentary report calls for adding scams and offences, like sending unwanted sexual images and promoting violence against women and girls.

A named senior manager at the tech giants should also be made personally liable in court for failures, it said.

Those behind the report said "we need to call time on the Wild West online".

Damian Collins, chairman of the joint committee issuing the report, said: "What's illegal offline should be regulated online.

"For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless.... the era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end."

New offences, more fines

The Online Safety Bill is seen as one of the most far-reaching attempts to date to regulate online content, which could have global implications.

The first draft, published in May, put a "duty of care" on large social websites to remove harmful or illegal content and protect children. But it was largely left up to the tech giants themselves to police, with oversight from media regulator Ofcom.

Image source, Reuters
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The committee quizzed dozens of witnesses, including Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen

But the parliamentary report calls for Ofcom to set much more explicit standards, and have even greater powers to investigate and fine big tech firms.

Among the many recommendations made over its 191 pages are:

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Elle tells the BBC that she fears what might happen next after receiving an unwanted explicit video or picture

The report also recommends that a wide range of new criminal offences should be created, based on proposals from the Law Commission, and carried in the bill, including:

  • Promoting or "stirring up" violence against women, or based on gender or disability
  • Knowingly distributing seriously harmful misinformation
  • Content "promoting self-harm" should be made illegal
  • "Cyber-flashing" - the sending of unwanted naked images - should be illegal
  • So should deliberately sending flashing images to those with epilepsy, with the goal of causing a seizure

Mr Collins said these changes would "bring more offences clearly within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, give Ofcom the power in law to set minimum safety standards for the services they will regulate, and to take enforcement action against companies if they don't comply".

Prison sentences

Another major addition is the recommendation that tech firms must appoint a "safety controller" who would be made liable for an offence if there were "repeated and systemic failings".

The idea has recently been pushed by the new Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries - who warned of potential prison sentences for serious offenders, and that the planned two-year grace period would end up being three to six months.

Image source, PA Media
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Nadine Dorries took over the secretary of state role in September

But Ms Dorries' sweeping powers in the first draft should also be limited, the report says. It argues the draft bill's definition of "illegal content" is "too dependent on the discretion of the secretary of state".

It was planned that Ms Dorries and her successors would have the power to exempt some services, modify codes of conduct, give "guidance" to Ofcom, and exercise powers on national security grounds - which the committee says should be variously restricted, removed, or subject to oversight.

And while many of the changes were welcomed by child protection advocates including the NSPCC, others remain concerned about potential free speech issues.

'Remains worrying'

The draft bill and this report both lay out exemptions for journalism, public interest, and free speech.

But think tank the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) said the report "fails to alleviate the gigantic threats posed by the draft Online Safety Bill to freedom of speech, privacy and innovation".

The report recommends removing a controversial section dealing with "legal but harmful" content for adults, which critics had feared could lead to unintended widespread censorship.

Image source, PA Media
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Martin Lewis from MoneySavingExpert was among those who campaigned for scam ads to be covered

"The replacement - defining a series of 'reasonable foreseeable risks' - remains worrying," said ASI's research head Matthew Lesh. "It would still mean speech being less free online compared to offline."

The report also did not make any moves to ban the use of end-to-end encryption, which has been criticised by some politicians and child safety advocates as enabling criminal activity.

Instead, it recommends that the use of encryption should be a "risk factor" included in risk assessments the tech companies must complete under the bill.

But the Internet Society, a non-profit organisation which campaigns for an open internet, said the committee "has been too eager to ignore" the risks of any move to undermine encryption.

"The findings released today are, sadly, a reflection of a public debate largely framed in misleading and emotive terms of child safety," said Robin Wilton from the society.

"As a consequence, we see a bill that will result in more complex, less secure systems for online safety, exposing our lives to greater risk from criminals and hostile governments."

The government now has two months to respond to the committee on this report, and the bill is expected to reach Parliament - the next stage of becoming law - early next year.