Everything you need to know about the Online Safety Bill
The Online Safety Bill has been subject to criticism from many different companies and charities (Alamy)
The Online Safety Bill has had a long route through Parliament, now entering the committee stage in the House of Lords with amendments that span across more than 100 pages to be debated.
The 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.
However, it has proved highly contentious, largely among online safety campaigners and freedom of speech advocates who have disagreed over the extent to which government and platforms should be able to monitor user content.
As the bill enters the Lords committee stage, here are the main areas up for debate:
Balance of power
Conservative peer and chair of the Lords Digital and Communications Committee Baroness Tina Stowell has warned that the government must get the “overarching framework” right.
“The key thing is getting the balance of power right between Parliament, government, Ofcom, and the tech platforms,” she told The House.
“Ultimately, this new regulatory framework should mean greater accountability to the public if each institution is properly equipped to discharge their respective responsibilities.”
The government is seeking to place greater checks on the regulator Ofcom, which will be responsible for carrying out the functions of the bill. While Stowell welcomes these checks, she is concerned that the independence of Ofcom could be undermined, potentially damaging its ability to hold tech platforms to account.
Stowell has tabled her own amendments to be considered, including removing the secretary of state’s abilities to direct Ofcom on a draft code of practice and to give wide-ranging guidance to Ofcom on its functions under the bill. She said she believed there is “strong support across the House” for some of the changes she has proposed.
Stowell suggested that a new parliamentary committee could be set up specifically to ensure Ofcom is delivering what it needs to, and getting the balance of power right.
Describing the bill as only the “start of effective online regulation” and “not the end game”, she said a new parliamentary committee would ensure legislation would be future-proof for technological changes.
“There is a danger that the Online Safety Bill is trying to solve all the problems of the online world in perpetuity,” she said.
“Technology and its uses are developing fast, and touch on so many aspects of how we live our lives. So we won’t ever have a single piece of legislation that can cover everything."
One of the latest debates surrounding the Online Safety Bill is whether it could undermine end-to-end encryption, which is a security method that only allows users to read private messages, and not the platform itself or third parties.
Ministers want Ofcom to be able to ask the platforms to monitor users, for example to detect and remove child abuse images, but some tech companies and freedom of speech advocates are strongly opposed to this move.
In an open letter published on Tuesday, a number of messaging service bosses, including the head of Whatsapp, warned that weakening encryption “undermines privacy” and opens the door to "routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance" of personal messages.
Whatsapp boss Will Cathcart told BBC News that his platform would rather be blocked in the UK than weaken the privacy of encrypted messaging.
Jessica Ní Mhainín at Index on Censorship told PoliticsHome: "Breaking encryption means threatening the security of private messaging and actually exposes all of us to bad actors who could then access our private information.
“This in turn has implications on cyber security and child safety. Bulk surveillance powers also threaten vital parts of the work of journalists and media organisations, several of whom have voiced their concerns about clauses in the bill already."
The NUJ has raised concerns that weakening encryption could risk the security of journalists and their sources who engage in confidential communications, while Lord Kamall wrote in The House that the bill could “make apps more vulnerable to attack or interception by bad actors”.
However, child protection charity NSPCC has described private messaging as the "frontline of online child sexual abuse", where abusers can privately communicate with children and send harmful content.
Baroness Stowell said there are “no silver bullets” when it comes to tackling te encryption issue, and has added her name to amendments that will probe what legal requirements Ofcom will have to meet before giving a notice to a regulated service which offers private messaging with end-to-end encryption, and to probe whether social media platforms and other regulated services will be required to undertake general monitoring of the activity of their users.
“This is a complex issue with many competing priorities,” she said.
“There are legitimate questions to be asked, and we need a proper debate about how extensive a role Ofcom should play in this space.”
Amendments will be debated in the Lords over whether encryption in private messaging should be protected.
Although the bill was originally conceived as a way to protect children online, it has now broadened its scope to tackling misinformation online.
Will Moy, chief executive of Full Fact, warned that as the UK approaches a general election, the bill does not go far enough in tackling how misinformation could undermine democracy.
“Instead of making this issue a priority, we have an Online Safety Bill that fails to address the harm that comes from misinformation,” he said.
“The government has rowed back on promises to tackle false, dangerous health content, despite all we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Not only does this bill fail to protect anyone against misinformation, we have repeatedly raised the fact that it poses a genuine risk to freedom of expression by leaving internet companies to mark their own homework.”
The organisation is calling on Parliament to change the bill to require transparency and risk assessments from internet companies as well as effective media literacy measures.
Violence against women and girls
Baroness Morgan has tabled an amendment to put an obligation on Ofcom to issue a code of practice on violence against women and girls rather than leaving it to the regulatory body’s discretion.
Writing for The House, the former culture secretary said: “While [the bill] promises to introduce tough new measures to ensure tech platforms tackle illegality online, it fails to name violence against women and girls and proposes that women and girls simply “filter out” sexism and misogyny through so-called user empowerment tools.
“Not being able to see the abusive (and worse) content doesn’t make it go away.”
Parliamentarians were warned at an event in Parliament last month that the Online Safety Bill may not currently go far enough to protect from emerging child safety threats posed by online virtual reality communities known as the "metaverse".
Baroness Kidron, chair of the 5Rights foundation which works to protect children online, discussed the emerging harms of the metaverse with parliamentarians, inviting them to test out the technology and consider safety risks it could pose to young people at a meeting in the House of Lords.
Kidron is calling for virtual ‘meeting’ or ‘touching’ to be treated by law in a way similar to physical sexual abuse.
She believes online VR platforms should also be held accountable when this abuse occurs in their environments, similarly to holding social media platforms to account for harmful online content.
“The metaverse experience is not just one of content, but of action, and these virtual actions are not adequately addressed by existing law and may be missed by the proposed bill," Kidron said.
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