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A delayed Online Safety Bill puts us all at risk

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

5 min read Partner content

As new technologies such as the metaverse develop, a whole host of additional risks are emerging without proper safeguards to protect online Britons. Delays on the Online Safety Bill risk us falling behind on important advances, and MPs agree.

We have seen in recent months that politics can sometimes be a complicated, unpredictable, and brutal business.

Such turmoil is part and parcel of political life. However, there are real-world consequences too, with disruptions to the parliamentary timetable delaying essential legislation intended to keep us all safe.

One disruption currently causing concern amongst MP’s and campaigners is the delayed passage of the vitally important Online Safety Bill.

This delay is particularly concerning because the one thing that society cannot press pause on is the relentless march of new technologies.

Some experts are now warning that, unless protections are urgently put into place, there is a real risk that Britons will not be safe online as these new technologies move to the mainstream.  

Sir Stephen Timms MP, who Chairs the Work and Pensions Select Committee, is one of those concerned that pausing the passage of the Online Safety Bill runs the risk of legislation falling out of step with technology.

“It is deeply frustrating that this much-needed legislation is being further delayed,” he tells The House Live. “People are losing their savings to online financial scams.  Google searches lead to adverts promising attractive returns from plausible sounding providers, who are in fact crooks.”

And it is not just known threats like financial scams that are causing unease. There are also specific worries that, as new technologies develop, a whole host of additional risks are emerging without proper safeguards being in place to protect online Britons.

One area identified as requiring particular legislative and regulatory focus is the development of the Metaverse.

The Metaverse is widely acknowledged to be the next major iteration of the Internet. It will bring a host of benefits to users, in work, education, leisure, health, and much more besides.

However, as a recent report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) explains, the Metaverse is also bringing new threats and vulnerabilities that need to be addressed at industry, regulatory and government levels. That is why the IET has been leading calls for legislators to wake up to the risks that the Metaverse poses, particularly for children and vulnerable users.

Child safety advocate and IET Honorary Fellow, Carol Vorderman MBE is one of those warning that if this vital legislation is not quickly put in place the rapidly emerging Metaverse could resemble the “Wild West.”

In a joint statement with Catherine Allen, co-author of the IET’s Safeguarding the metaverse report and member of the IET’s Digital Policy Panel she said, “it’s disappointing to hear reports of a delay in the Online Safety Bill, which aims to keep online users safe from harm.

 “A delay in legislation of several months is significant, because of the particularly rapid pace of technology’s development. The speed at which online platforms evolve means that new threats emerge daily”.

Vorderman and Allen are not alone in voicing concerns that essential legislation is simply not keeping pace with rapid technological change.

Rosie Duffield MP shares Vorderman’s concerns that pushing this critical legislation into the next Parliamentary session will leave users vulnerable to exploitation.

“It's really frustrating that the Bill has been delayed,” she tells The House Live. “Things are constantly changing online, with developments in technology, and the Metaverse is a prime example of this. We need it to come onto the statute book as soon as possible. The delays we’ve seen recently don’t help.”

What is particularly concerning for campaigners and MPs is that the latest delay seems to be part of a pattern that has slowed the progress of critical legislation designed to protect UK citizens online.

 “The current Online Safety Bill started life as a Green Paper long ago in 2017,” Ahmed Kotb, Digital Lead at the IET tells The House Live.  “Since then, we have seen two, soon to be three, Prime Ministers and six DCMS Secretaries of State. The slowness of progress is creating risks for the public and opportunities for exploitation and abuse.”

Legislation and regulation inevitably have to play ‘catch up’ with new technologies like the Metaverse. However, the challenge of regulating an emerging technology is compounded by limited awareness amongst parliamentarians about the additional risks the Metaverse could bring for users. 

To address this, the IET is now providing MPs and peers with equipment and support to spend some time in the Metaverse. This will help build awareness of the benefits and risks that this new technology will bring.

It is an approach that Rosie Duffield welcomes, believing increased digital literacy amongst her parliamentary colleagues will bring real benefits in creating legislation that is robust enough to deal with future threats as well as current ones.

“Although the Metaverse is a brilliant technology, we do need to be mindful of the potential harms,” she explains. “All MPs ought to get up to speed with what can happen in the Metaverse and ensure we are legislating to protect children from as much as possible. We need to create a balance between using and developing this fantastic technology and making sure we have relevant safeguards in place.”

Those safeguards require rapid, comprehensive, and flexible legislation on the statute book to protect Internet and Metaverse users. As a new Prime Minister takes up residence in Downing Street, campaigners will be hoping that getting the Online Safety Bill back on-track is at the very top of their to-do list.

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