Samples of Russian sponsored Facebook posts displayed in Congress

Parliamentarians call for ‘major changes’ to Online Safety Bill

Image credit: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein

The Joint Committee responsible for reviewing the Draft Online Safety Bill has reviewed its first draft and concluded that serious changes are needed to “call time on the Wild West online”.

Most significantly, peers and MPs said in their report on the draft bill, which was published in May, that it must be clearer about what content is illegal. They also proposed expanding the scope of the bill to include online flashing, paid-for scam and fraudulent advertising, content promoting self-harm, and deliberately sending flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy.

The report proposed that pornographic sites should have a statutory duty to keep children away, whether or not they host user-to-user content.

It recommended that Ofcom, which will be assigned responsibility for regulating the sector, should be given more powers to investigate, audit, and fine technology companies. Ofcom should also draft mandatory codes of practice for ISPs with named senior managers at firms designated as “safety controller” and made liable if a service is found to fail to protect users, the committee concluded.

Additionally, it suggested recommending an automatic exemption for recognised news publishers in order to protect freedom of expression, saying journalism and “public interest speech” should be acknowledged as crucial to democracy.

The government has two months to respond to the recommendations in the report. The much-delayed bill is due to be brought to parliament next year.

“The committee were unanimous in their conclusion that we need to call time on the Wild West online,” said MP Damian Collins, chair of the Joint Committee. “What’s illegal offline should be regulated online. For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless. A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence, and in some cases even loss of life.”

“The committee has set out recommendations to bring more offences clearly within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, give Ofcom the power in law to set minimum safety standards for the services they will regulate, and to take enforcement action against companies if they don’t comply.”

“The era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end. The companies are clearly responsible for services they have designed and profit from, and need to be held to account for the decisions they make.”

Responding to the publication, digital, culture, media, and sport secretary Nadine Dorries said the bill will “require tech firms and social media companies to take a long-overdue responsibility to protect their users” and will “hold big tech to account if they fail to act.”

“The government will consider its recommendations carefully and incorporate them where we feel the bill can be strengthened further to make Britain the safest place to go online, while protecting free speech.”

The report has been welcomed by other Parliamentarians including Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury Committee, who commented: “We support the joint committee’s recommendations [to include fraudulent adverts in the scope of the bill] and call on the government to act and stop these criminals in their tracks. Without a decisive response from the government and the tech giants, many more individuals will sadly fall victim to these scammers.”

The report said: “Excluding paid-for advertising will leave service providers with little incentive to remove harmful adverts, and risks encouraging further proliferation of such content.”

The changes suggested by the report were generally welcomed by groups such as Hope Not Hate, Demos, Reset, Tell Mama, Compassion in Politics, Carnegie Trust, SumOfUs, and the Antisemitism Policy Trust. William Perrin, a trustee of Carnegie UK, said the recommendations are “sensible and proportionate” and called on the government to accept them in order to tackle content that causes real-world harm, discrimination, and suffering. The recommendations were also supported by Facebook parent group, Meta, in a statement.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles