UK Passes Landmark Online Safety Bill, Ushering in a New Era of Digital Regulation
The UK Parliament passed controversial legislation on Tuesday that introduces new content moderation rules for online platforms and services, making the communications watchdog Ofcom the main internet regulator. This paves the way for the Online Safety Bill to become law in the coming days.
Ofcom can fine companies up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover, or £18 million, whichever is higher, for violating the new regime.
The Online Safety Bill, formerly known as the Online Harms Bill, has been in development for years as UK policymakers have struggled to address a range of online safety concerns. In 2019, the government published a white paper that outlined proposals for rules to tackle illegal content, such as terrorism and child sexual abuse material (CSAM), but also expressed an ambition to address a broader range of online activity that could be considered harmful, such as violent content, incitement of violence, encouragement of suicide, disinformation, cyberbullying, and children accessing adult material. The white paper was followed by the publication of the Online Safety Bill in May 2021.
The proposed legislation grew increasingly sprawling, as policymakers responded to a smorgasbord of online safety concerns, from trolling and scam ads to deepfake porn and animal cruelty. The governing Conservative Party has also seen a succession of senior ministers steer the legislation since 2019, including Oliver Dowden and Nadine Dorries, who enthusiastically pushed to speed up the criminalization of tech CEOs.
Michelle Donelan has been the secretary of state driving the bill since late 2022. She oversaw some trimming back of its scope at the end of last year, removing provisions focused on legal but harmful content following concerns about the impact on free speech. However, speech and civil rights groups remain concerned.
Another significant point of contention revolves around the bill's potential consequences for web security and privacy. This legislation grants extensive authority to Ofcom, enabling it to compel platforms to scrutinize message content for illicit material. Numerous end-to-end encrypted platforms and services have expressed concern about the potential dangers associated with these powers. In fact, some widely recognized services have even issued warnings about the possibility of withdrawing from the UK unless the bill undergoes amendments to protect robust encryption methods.
The government seems to have avoided a confrontation with mainstream messaging services such as WhatsApp by addressing the encryption matter through a meticulously crafted ministerial statement earlier this month. However, privacy and security experts continue to maintain a vigilant stance on this issue.
Some people worry that the Online Safety Bill will lead to widespread age-gating on the UK internet, as web services try to reduce their liability by forcing users to confirm that they are old enough to view content that might be considered inappropriate for minors.
Ofcom now faces the challenging task of striking a delicate balance between addressing the calls for a completely secure Internet by child safety advocates and addressing the apprehensions of digital, civil liberties, and human rights organisations that the legislation may encroach upon well-established democratic freedoms.
In a brief statement, the UK's new online safety regulator did not indicate the challenges that lie ahead, simply welcoming the passage of the Online Safety Bill through Parliament and stating that it is ready to implement the new rules.
Dame Melanie Dawes, CEO of Ofcom, expressed that this marks a significant milestone in the endeavour to establish a safer online environment for individuals of all ages in the UK. The entire Ofcom team recognises the privilege of being entrusted with this crucial responsibility and stands prepared to commence the implementation of these new laws.
“Very soon after the Bill receives Royal Assent, we’ll consult on the first set of standards that we’ll expect tech firms to meet in tackling illegal online harms, including child sexual exploitation, fraud and terrorism,” Dawes stated.
Beyond specific concerns, there is a general worry about the regulatory burden the legislation will impose on the UK's digital economy. The rules apply not only to major social media platforms but also to many smaller and less well-resourced online services, which must comply or risk significant penalties.