Online Safety Bill: Landmark Laws to Keep Children Safe Online

The new draft Online Safety Bill was published on Wednesday 12th May 2021. The bill outlines designs to better protect young people from online risks.  

What is the Online Safety Bill? 

The draft Online Safety Bill is the response to the Online Harms White Paper, published in April 2019. This white paper was an analysis of the risks posed by the digital world and a proposal for improving the protections for online users. 

The white paper also mapped out designs to introduce a new duty of care on technology companies to ensure they have effective systems in place to address harmful content. 

The draft Online Harms Bill presents the new legislation that will enforce the plans suggested in the white paper to better protect children online and tackle social media abuse, including racist hate crimes. 

Timeline of events 

  • April 2019: Online Harms White Paper published 

  • 8th April 2019 – 1st July 2019: Public consultation on the white paper, receiving 2,400 responses 

  • February 2020: Initial response to the consultation provided by the government 

  • December 2020: Full government response to the consultation published, outlining the final policy position for the online safety regulatory framework, and the government's intention to enshrine it in law through the Online Safety Bill. 

Why is it needed? 

It is largely known that the online world presents a plethora of risks, especially to our children who may not always recognise when something is dangerous online. 

The percentage of parents that believe the benefits of the internet outweigh the online risks prove to be falling, with 65% in 2015 dropping to 55% in 2019.  

And not too long ago, major sports teams boycotted social media in a bid to highlight and tackle online abuse. 

Reports have also shown how the pandemic has accelerated the rate of fake news and fuelled online child abuse. In the first lockdown, the Internet Watch Foundation blocked 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse

The Online Safety Bill aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. 

What does the draft Online Safety Bill include? 

Duty of care 

Tech companies now all have a duty of care towards their users; they are required to determine the risks their platforms pose to children and vulnerable people and take action to mitigate them. 

The risks these firms will need to tackle include hate crimes, harassment, and threats directed at individual users. Social giants such as Twitter and Facebook (known as category 1 services in the bill) must also act against content that is lawful but harmful, such as encouragement of self-harm and fake news. 

Freedom of expression 

The Online Safety Bill also protects people’s freedom of expression, allowing online users to still express themselves through debate. Tech companies are required to implement measures that safeguard freedom of expression. 

Companies must provide methods for appealing should content be removed without good reason and reinstate the content should it be proved to have been unfairly removed. 

The category 1 services must publish assessments of their impact on freedom of expression and demonstrate they have acted to mitigate adverse effects. 

Democratic content

The bill protects ‘democratically important’ content, including content promoting or opposing government policy or a political party. Social giants in the category 1 services must safeguard such content ahead of a vote in Parliament, election, or campaigning on a live political issue. 

Companies must consider political reasons for why content is being shared and safeguard it should it be democratically important.  

Journalistic content 

Social media companies are now legally required to protect UK users’ access to journalistic content shared on their platforms. 

When moderating their content, these firms must consider its journalistic importance as well as provide an effective appeals process for journalists’ (and citizen journalists’) removed content. 

Online fraud 

For the first time, tech companies must be accountable for combatting fraudulent user-generated content, including romance scams and fake investment opportunities.  

As the bill focuses on the dangers committed through user-generated content, it does not include new laws against fraudulent emails, adverts, or websites. However, the Home Office will publish a Fraud Action Plan after the 2021 spending review. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport will also be consulting on online advertising later this year. 

To find out more about the new Online Safety Bill, and see the legislation in full, read here

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