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New Online Safety Laws Could Take "Years" To Show True Benefits

The Online Safety Act passed into law in September 2023 (Alamy)

5 min read

The government, Labour, and an influential committee of MPs have warned that it could take years for the public to feel the benefit of the Online Safety Act, and said it will be “critical” for the new regulations to continue to be reviewed.

A new report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has argued that it may take years for most of the public to see any tangible benefits from the Online Safety Act, despite high public expectations. 

As the regulation will not be fully implemented until 2026, the report found there is a risk that public confidence will be undermined if it does not quickly bring about tangible changes to online experiences. 

Under the new law, individuals must first complain to service providers, who then handle complaints. If they are not acted upon, individuals can then complain to Ofcom, the main regulator responsible for enacting the legislation, but Ofcom is not able to then act on complaints individually. The committee has therefore called on Ofcom to make members of the public aware of the outcome of complaints. The PAC did, however, acknowledge that Ofcom had made a “good start” in preparing for its new role in upholding online safety. 

Labour MP and PAC chair Meg Hillier told PoliticsHome that she was concerned that in the UK, “we legislate pretty badly” and would therefore need a review of the Online Safety Act to ensure the outcomes are continually evaluated as technologies develop and new harms emerge. 

“There is a need for people to see quick improvements," she said. "It is going to be challenging to evaluate – I don’t think anyone thinks it is done.”

She added that more needed to be done to establish a “public record” of where online harms were identified and what action was being taken to mitigate them – a challenge, she admitted, when Ofcom is responsible for regulating 100,000 service providers.

A government source agreed that a review of the legislation will be needed at some point down the line and that there was a lot more work to do to convince the public that the internet is going to get safer and cleaner. “We're gonna have to work pretty hard,” they said.

But they believed that much of the responsibility for this would need to sit with platforms themselves, ensuring that the public is aware of the work being done, and the timeframes over which that work will be implemented. 

The government is of the view that the legislation is “far from done and dusted” and is currently looking at ways to move on other aspects of online safety, including on issues regarding devices themselves that were raised by Esther Ghey, the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday that Home Secretary James Cleverly will meet tech industry figures next Monday to discuss online safety further.

"The Online Safety Act requires companies to offer all adults optional user identity verification, companies will also need to take firm action to improve safety for children in particular, and Ofcom will be able to monitor tech companies and have strong powers to ensure they comply," he said.

"The Home Secretary is meeting with the industry on Monday next week."

A senior Labour source said a review will be needed whether under Tory or Labour government, but did not outline a timeframe for when a potential Labour government might aim to carry one out.

They suggested that the PAC report showed the importance of greater guidance and support services for the public in the interim and a potential public information campaign to inform people as to how the new regulations will affect them. 

“We need to know if this is going to work,” they said. “For far too long we have had legislation that fails to actually make an impact.”

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, told PoliticsHome he felt the report showed the "lack of ambition" in the scope of the act. 

“The report very correctly highlights this potential disconnect between what Ofcom is likely to deliver and the reasonable expectations about what the regime should offer,” he said.

“The public at large will judge the success or otherwise of this regime by two key measures: one is whether we see a clear reduction in the risk [such as] child abuse, suicide and self harm content through to awful racist abuse and misogyny.

“And the other test will be their own experience of using social media and whether we see an improvement in platforms being less toxic and promoting less harmful and misogynistic content.”

The PAC inquiry also heard that Ofcom will rely on automated processes that are not yet in place to ensure companies comply with the regulations. The report has also called on Ofcom to urgently finalise these processes and provide clarity over how it will approach dealing with providers who refuse to engage with the guidance.

An Ofcom spokesperson said: “We welcome this report from the Public Accounts Committee, which recognises the swift start we’ve made in implementing the UK’s new online safety laws.

"We’re on track with our plans, and will carefully consider the Committee’s recommendations as we continue our work to create a safer life online.”

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