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Online Safety Bill Set To Pass But "Huge Gaps" Could Remain

The Online Safety Bill is in its final stages passing through parliament (Alamy)

7 min read

The historic Online Safety Bill has reached its final stages of parliament, but a number of figures who have sought to shape the legislation fear that "huge gaps" remain in the law to make the internet a safer place.

The Online Safety Bill seeks to legislate for social media companies to take responsibility for harmful and illegal content online and make it safer for users – particularly children – to experience the internet.

The legislation has had a long route through Parliament since it started out as a white paper in 2019, and returned to the House of Commons on Tuesday for final debates of the Lords’ amendments. It is expected to become law by the end of this year.

In its final stages, there are few opportunities remaining for MPs and peers to add further amendments, but leading figures involved in the bill are concerned there are “huge gaps” remaining and said that campaigning for stronger protections will continue even after it is passed.

The bill has proved to be highly contentious among online safety campaigners and freedom of speech advocates who have disagreed over the extent to which the government and platforms should be able to monitor user content.

Alex Davies-Jones, the shadow minister for technology and the digital economy, addressed parliament as the bill returned to the Commons on Tuesday, and insisted “this is not the end”, as Labour believe there are many issues left to be addressed by the legislation.

“This bill has gone on a huge journey, the government has repeatedly delayed its passage and even went to great efforts to recommit parts of the bill to committee in an attempt to remove important provisions relating to legal but harmful content,” she said.

“This bill has sadly fallen victim to Tory infighting from day one. The party on the opposite bench truly cannot decide if they are the party for protecting children or the party of free speech, when they should be the party of both.”

She argued the bill makes “no effort” to future proof or anticipate emerging harms as new technologies develop.

As the bill still focuses on content rather than social media platform’s business models, she said it “may not go far enough”, and called for the government to commit to a review of the legislation within the next five years to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”.

“This is not the end,” she insisted, adding that Labour will continue to push for the bill to be passed in good time and reviewed thereafter. 

Many campaigners agree: Andy Burrows, consultant for the Molly Rose Foundation, a suicide prevention charity that was set up after a 14-year-old girl took her own life after viewing self-harm content online, feels that while some improvements have been made to the bill over the last few months, there are still “crucial areas” where it does not go far enough. 

“At a time when there's an attempt from companies to really chill the ability of civil society organisations to hold companies to account, the lack of formal arrangements to give civil society organisations a voice is a really big gap,” he told PoliticsHome.

“Companies will have to give users the option to turn on filters that will stop them from being exposed to certain types of content, including suicide and self harm content. Our strong preference would still be that those were switched off by default.”

However, Burrows conceded that some improvements to the bill have been made in recent months, such as personal accountability for bosses of social media firms that do not clamp down on online harms, and amendments to ensure service providers use age verification to prevent children encountering harms.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, a cross-party peer who has been an instrumental figure in introducing a number of successful amendments to the bill, has continuously argued for stronger protections around the design of internet platforms, rather than just regulating the content.

She told PoliticsHome she is “pleased” that her own amendments have successfully passed in the Lords to mitigate the impact of online harms enabled by the design or operation of internet platforms.

“The inclusion of [the amendment on design] in the bill is fundamental. It doesn't matter where harms happen, it's got the principle of safety by design,” she said.

“I was also really pleased that the government agreed to the amendment which is about judging companies according to their risk as well as their size.

“It is very much now on Ofcom to really interrogate the design and feature issues alongside the content ones, and I think that's definitely what parents want and what the Lords wanted.”

Kidron said the bill was overwhelmingly positive, but that she hoped Ofcom would take the opportunity to use the bill’s powers in full.

“[The bill] gives Ofcom the opportunity to actually hold companies to account,” Kidron said.

“It gives an indication to the companies what the societal expectation is regarding children, and they should meet that fully, holistically, willingly, wittingly, because we've said what we want.

“The question is going to be for the industry, how much they try and bounce around the head of a pin to avoid these things, and how much they meet the expectations. Frankly, there is nothing in the bill that they couldn't have designed their services to do in the first place.”

Full Fact, a charity that campaigns for tackling misinformation, is also concerned that the bill has not taken the chance to effectively tackle online misinformation. 

Glen Tarman, Head of Advocacy and Policy at Full Fact, told PoliticsHome the bill had been a “huge missed opportunity”.

“​​Full Fact is deeply disappointed in the failure of the bill to introduce adequate regulation to address harmful misinformation and disinformation, and also to protect freedom of expression. So the Online Safety Bill has been a huge missed opportunity,” he said.

“We were pressing that the social media companies should have some obligation to undertake media literacy, and we were disappointed that it will only be voluntary: they will be able to walk away and that's another missed opportunity.”

Tarman also complained that the government had U-turned on including protections for health misinformation.

“That would have required the platforms to have clear policies on harmful health information,” he said.

Instead, the bill will introduce a duty to take certain content down, but Full Fact argues signposting and direction to correct information is needed to ensure the safety of internet users seeking health advice. 

“We've ended up with something that's not fit for purpose,” Tarman said. 

“It’s left a problem for the future. The power is still within the social media companies, without proper oversight or regulation, to make choices about what we read and see and can say online.

“Not dealing with harmful misinformation and disinformation adequately simply kicks a problem further up the road that we had every opportunity to address.”

Multiple campaigners told PoliticsHome that further legislation will be needed further down the line to strengthen protections, due to the number of issues seen as unresolved.   

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