queens speech

Online Harms Bill edges closer to implementation after Queen’s Speech

Image credit: reuters

The oft-delayed Online Harms Bill, which aims to make large tech firms accountable for the content on their platforms, has moved closer to being signed into law in today’s Queen’s Speech.

The bill, which was first proposed under then-Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017, will give Ofcom new powers to fine companies up to £18m or 10 per cent of global turnover (whichever sum is higher) for failing their statutory duty of care to users.

That duty of care will be defined by whether they have allowed illegal content onto their platforms, such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and media that promotes suicide.

They will also be obliged to abide to a new code of conduct specifically set out to protect children online. This is particularly relevant given that cases of online child abuse have risen rapidly following the coronavirus lockdowns and the shift to educating online over the internet instead of in person in classrooms.

Platforms that do not comply with the rules can be blocked from being accessed in the UK. Ofcom will also require companies to use “targeting technology” to identify and remove illegal material.

In her speech today, the Queen said the bill will allow the UK to “lead the way in ensuring internet safety for all, especially for children”.

Her Majesty also made references to improving national infrastructure, in particular to bolster connectivity by rail and bus and to extend 5G mobile coverage and gigabit capable broadband.

Alison Trew, senior child safety online policy officer at the NSPCC, said: “The confirmation of an Online Safety Bill in the Queen’s Speech is a significant step towards creating a 'Duty of Care' for children in order to protect young users at a time when they face unprecedented risk online.

“The government must learn from other regulated industries to ensure the bill delivers an ambitious and effective framework for Ofcom to hold tech firms to account if their products cause avoidable harm to children.

“Ultimately, legislation will be judged on whether it prevents harm and abuse and works in the interest of children rather than simply embedding the status quo with regulation that is palatable only to big tech firms.”

In May 2020, peers in the House of Lords expressed frustration at the government’s slow roll out of the Online Harms Bill and said they were concerned that it could take several years before it is fully implemented.

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