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Draft Online Safety Bill finally published; stiff fines for negligent social media firms

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The UK government has published its long-delayed draft Online Safety Bill, which proposes significant fines for companies which fail to deal with online abuse. Under the legislation, senior executives could also face criminal prosecution and some websites could be blocked.

The Online Safety Bill (aka Online Harms) legislation aims to establish a framework for online regulation which upholds freedom of expression whilst also making the internet safe from child predators, extremists and other bad actors - a tricky balance for governments and social media companies to strike. The draft bill was announced yesterday during the Queen’s Speech as a priority for Parliament in the year ahead.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “It’s time for tech companies to be held to account and to protect the British people from harm. If they fail to do so, they will face penalties.”

The bill will place duty of care on social media companies, forcing them to take timely action to removal illegal content – such as death threats, rape threats and terrorist propaganda – as well as abusive content which falls beneath the threshold for criminality. The companies will be required to take action to remove and limit the spread of the most serious content (defined as terrorist material, suicide content and child sexual abuse), which must also be reported to law enforcement authorities.

Companies which fail to respond appropriately could face a range of sanctions from Ofcom, which will be given regulatory authority. Ofcom could block access to their sites; fine them either up to 10 per cent of annual turnover or £18m (whichever is higher), and senior managers could be criminally liable for failures of duty of care.

“The draft bill contains reserved powers for Ofcom to pursue criminal action against named senior managers whose companies do not comply with Ofcom’s requests for information,” the government said in a statement. “These will be introduced if tech companies fail to live up to their new responsibilities.”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, digital secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Today, the UK shows global leadership with our ground-breaking laws to usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world.

“It means a 13-year-old will no longer be able to access pornographic images on Twitter. YouTube will be banned from recommending videos promoting terrorist ideologies. Criminal antisemitic posts will need to be removed without delay, while platforms will have to stop the intolerable level of abuse that many women face in almost every single online setting. And of course, this legislation will make sure the internet is not a safe space for horrors such as child sexual abuse or terrorism.”

Companies will also be required by law to safeguard free expression and reinstate material which is inappropriately removed. They will be forbidden from discriminating against particular political views and held to account for arbitrary removal of journalistic content. The legislation also contains provisions to tackle online scams, requiring companies to take responsibility for fraudulent user-generated content ranging from romance scams to fake investment opportunities.

A review of the new regulations is scheduled to take place two years after their introduction.

Labour described the proposed regulations as “watered down and incomplete”. Shadow culture Jo Stevens commented: “There is little to incentivise companies to prevent their platforms from being used for harmful practices. The bill, which will have taken the government more than five years from its first promise to act to be published, is a wasted opportunity to put into place future-proofed legislation to provide an effective and all-encompassing regulatory framework to keep people safe online.”

Social media companies have been criticised for neglecting to address abuse, for arguably arbitrary removal of legal content (such as photos of breastfeeding) and for capitulating to censorious authorities by extinguishing critical speech. Facebook is trialling handing over final judgements on content moderation to an independent oversight committee of experts.

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