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The Internet Is Not A Safe Place… Or Is It?

The Controversies Of The Online Safety Bill.

By Durga Sharma

a mouse hovering over the word security
Photo via Pixabay on Pexels

A few days ago, the Online Safety Bill was passed out of the House of Lords after much

debate and amendment, and is currently waiting for Royal Assent - the process by which a piece of legislation becomes law. Though it is a key step in the legislative process, it is mostly ceremonial, with refusal being extremely rare. The last recorded instance was in 1708, during Queen Anne’s reign. So in this sense, the Bill is almost guaranteed to become law. It promises to make the internet a safer place, particularly on social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and X (formerly known as Twitter). However due to its controversy surrounding freedom of thought and expression, we may ask whether we are trading safety for our ability to express ourselves online in whatever form we may choose.

The Online Safety Bill was first conceptualised in March 2022 in connection with OFCOM (the communications watchdog) in response to concerns over extreme content being circulated widely across the internet. Interestingly, the Bill expands the scope of action available, by examining not only illegal, but also ‘legal but harmful’ content. This shift will allow for extreme propaganda to be regulated, placing more responsibility on the platforms where such content is published. The widening of the scope will also allow for dangerous content to be regulated and removed, such as that promoting self harm. However, this provision was removed for adults towards the end of 2022, meaning it is the responsibility of the person to move away from such content if they come across it. In terms of internet safety and accountability, this is a real loss - company liability in this area has been reduced to children only, with no equivalent provision for adults. Personally, this makes me question whether the Bill is really going to be as effective as it claims in terms of improving user safety, as a large percentage of the population are no longer accounted for.

Yet it cannot be ignored that the measures in place to protect children are being strengthened overall, with social media platforms being expected to remove illegal material quickly - or prevent it from appearing in the first place. Additionally, though the reduced protections of adults have come under scrutiny, the Bill does maintain a set of obligations applicable to all social media sites, regardless of the age of their users. Sites will have to make sure illegal content is removed and offer options to filter out harmful content that users do not want to see. Crucially, there will be a legal responsibility on social media platforms to enforce these promises they have made to users through the terms and conditions (that might actually persuade me to read them!).

This Bill is taking monumental strides to improve transparency across the internet, as seen within the world of photoshop. Taking inspiration from other countries such as France, Norway and Israel, the Online Safety Bill provides many different types of penalties for those who do not comply with the regulations set out by law, from fines to service restriction orders. Service restriction orders prevent support towards the platform by the infrastructure provider, for example search engines listing the site or ad servers who are generating revenue. The positive impacts of this move will be wide reaching in terms of removing the filter and giving people a better idea of what they are actually seeing on social media, as well as increasing accountability of third party providers overall. These measures are not just limited to photoshop - in fact, they can be applied to most breaches of the Bill, with the precise penalty being decided based upon the type of infringement that has occurred.

In addition, social media sites have been given greater responsibility to prevent underage users from accessing their sites, an increasingly prevalent issue. In a recent study, Childwise found that two thirds of children aged 11-18 have knowingly lied about their age to access social media sites, with Snapchat being one of the biggest offenders. Passing this Bill and increasing company responsibility and liability can only serve as an advantage; working in tandem with the controls on illegal and harmful content, in theory people under a certain age cannot be exposed to it at all (though just how effective enforcement will be remains to be seen).

All the positives aside, the elephant in the room cannot be ignored. There are serious concerns that this Bill will inhibit people’s freedom of thought and expression, which are inherent rights found under Articles Nine and Ten of the Human Rights Act (the legislation ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights within the UK). The issue is where the line between content regulation and infringement upon these rights lies, and it is this question which has given the Bill its controversial reputation. However, contrary to the belief held by some, this legislation is not an attempt to prevent communication as a whole; rather, it is a means to regulate it. The two may seem similar - and in some ways they are - however the former works to stifle expression, whilst the latter seeks to moderate it. In fact, this issue is addressed within the Bill itself. Clause 29 sets out measures for moderating internet communications within the bounds of freedom of expression, and further takes user-privacy into account.

So, what will the internet look like post-assent? In theory, the safety and transparency will be vastly improved, making the internet a much safer place to be. However like most things, this law does have flaws, and it remains to be seen just how effective enforcement will be. Another concern is whether its passing will have an impact on freedom of expression. This is a fine line to draw, but it is essential to improving the overall safety and security of our lives online. With its implementation, we can hopefully look forward to a safer online experience!


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