We finally have an Online Safety Bill with real teeth to regulate harmful online content
Way, way, way back in the day (actually twelve years ago), as minister for technology I responded to a debate called by then MP Claire Perry, who was quite rightly concerned by how easy it was for kids to access adult content online.
Although it was a short debate, I made it clear that I shared Claire’s concerns, and as a result she produced a paper for the government on how to try and tackle this issue.
Shortly after, David Cameron raised concerns with Google about how easy it was to search (and find) child abuse images. He threatened legislation, at which point Google suddenly found it had the technical ability to block hundreds of thousands of search terms and phrases, and replace them with a warning message.
In both instances, the response of the internet community had been a triple negative. First, it was technically too difficult to do. Secondly, they could only block stuff which was clearly illegal and where there was a court order. And thirdly, any attempt to limit access to the internet (even for child abuse images) amounted to censorship. In short, politicians should get stuffed and keep away from things they didn’t understand.
I shall always remember that debate with Claire Perry as the start of the journey to where we are today, with the Online Safety Bill. Over that period, while on-line platforms have brought huge benefits, the range of problems has proliferated. There is not just access to child abuse images, pornography and extremist content. There is also the multitude of sites and posts that promote self-harm and mentally damage our kids. Then there is the huge amount of abuse, racist and misogynous. And of course, the attempts to undermine democracies and elections.
No one should regard the Online Safety Bill as a panacea
There has been some progress. Not only does civic society continue to play a role – the Internet Watch Foundation turned 25 last year - government has also brought in legislation, notably adopting Baroness Kidron’s Age Appropriate Design Code. And there have been false starts, such as the failed attempt to bring in age verification in the Digital Economy Act.
But a consensus has at last emerged. The platforms are doing more – it would be churlish to deny that. And it is now accepted that governments must act. The Online Safety Bill is mirrored by the European Union’s proposals in the Digital Services Act, which is on a similar timetable. President Biden spoke about children’s privacy in his State of the Union Address, and there at last seems a chance the United States will act. There is global action.
The Online Safety Bill is in a sense the end of a long journey. In reality, it is the beginning of one. No one should regard it as a panacea. This is the first time we have attempted to put in place a comprehensive approach to internet – or perhaps more accurately platform – regulation. The approach is certainly the right one. An experienced regulator in Ofcom. A framework against which platforms can be measured, rather than an attempt to police every piece of content, which would have been impossible. And real teeth, in the form of hasty fines for those that don’t comply.
The Bill will be caught between two opposing and irreconcilable arguments. Some will wrongly believe that the day it is passed, all the ills of the internet will disappear. They won’t. Others will argue that it stifles free speech, and will focus on the inevitable missteps when legitimate, though strong meat, opinion is removed.
It will be a difficult tightrope for Ofcom and the government to walk. But we should be thankful we have begun the journey.
Lord Vaizey is a Conservative peer and former minister for technology and culture.
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