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UK Government publishes Online Safety Bill

Online Safety
17 March 2022
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Wide-reaching legislation designed to tackle harmful content in the online world has been published by the UK Government.

The Online Safety Bill contains provisions to crack down on various "harms" including cyber-bullying, fraud, material promoting self-harm, and pornography. Commenting ahead of the plans being laid before parliament, Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries said:

"We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age. If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms."

Ian Russell, spokesman for the Molly Rose Foundation, set up to prevent suicides by young people, said:

"The first reading of the Online Safety Bill in Parliament is another important step towards ending the damaging era of tech self-regulation. Increasingly, we are all reminded of the appalling consequences created by harmful online content.

"Even nations and governments can struggle to protect themselves from the damaging use of digital technology, so we must do more to safeguard the lives of our young and vulnerable. It is time for the laws, regulations, and freedoms of our offline democracies to be reflected in the digital domain."

Despite the overall aims of the online safety regime being welcomed, its details have drawn criticism from civil liberties groups concerned over a potential threat to free expression. In particular, critics point to a move to criminalise "legal but harmful" content, and farm out regulation of content to tech companies.

Free speech campaigners Article 19 warn that the plans fail to provide "appropriate protection to the right to freedom of expression". A press release from the group issued this morning states:

“From the Government’s communication, it seems that the Bill will still be overly broad in scope, attempting to regulate the entirety of human communication and interaction online. It’s disappointing that the Government is not planning to get rid of the ‘legal but harmful’ concept, despite strong criticism from ARTICLE 19 and other free speech campaigners.

"‘Legal’ speech is protected speech. Companies, faced with huge fines or even criminal liability for non-compliance, will be incentivised to act in a censorious manner, err on the side of caution and be heavy handed. As a result, the Bill will give platforms more control over our speech and interactions online. Those who are most marginalised, minority groups and civil society activists, will be at the greatest risk of censorship."

Christian groups including CARE have also cautioned that the bill's speech provisions could undermine Gospel freedoms. Tech companies have repeatedly been criticised for curbing content perceived as politically incorrect, such as Christian teaching on sexual morality, marriage, and the immutability of sex.

Earlier this year, a CARE spokesman stressed that: "The proposals on 'legal but harmful' content have the potential to curb free expression and religious liberty", adding: "Vague speech laws have clear problems. Westminster need only look at the Scottish Government's recent Hate Crime Bill for proof of that".

Other aspects of the legislation have been welcomed by child safety campaigners, including a requirement for pornography sites to verify the age of users. The government has said that it will make sure all websites which publish or host pornography put "robust checks in place to ensure users are 18 years old or over".

Age verification measures were backed by Parliament in 2017. However, the legislation designed to usher them into law was not enacted by the government and ditched altogether in 2019. Speaking last month, after plans for age verification were again outlined by Ministers, CARE CEO Ross Hendry said:

"This announcement is hugely encouraging for all of us at CARE who have spent years calling for this safeguard. Tens-of-thousands of children have stumbled across and continue to stumble across porn. They are disturbed, upset, and damaged by it. A just society does not allow this to happen, and it is good that the government has finally recognised our campaign.

“Some groups oppose this technology on the grounds that adults should not face any barrier to porn. They argue that barriers to access violate privacy or ‘interfere with sexual freedom’. In a society that requires people to present proof of age to purchase alcohol, tobacco, or other adult products online, this is absurd. Adult convenience should never trump child safety.

“We await more detail from the government and will engage with Ministers and the parliamentary process in the months ahead. Regardless of party-political affiliation, parliamentarians should row in behind age checks as a welcome and long overdue safeguard. Several European countries have implemented it in the last few months – it’s time the UK followed suit.”

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