online child safety

‘Significant improvements’ to be made to proposed online safety laws, MPs told

Efforts to tackle cyber flashing and paid-for scam advertising could be part of 'significant improvements' to proposed online safety laws, the government has said.

The Draft Online Safety Bill was finally published in May 2021, proposing 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.

In December, the Joint Committee responsible for reviewing the Draft Bill concluded that serious changes were needed to “call time on the Wild West online”. Notably, the peers and MPs wrote in their report on the draft bill that it must be clearer about what content is illegal online.

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday evening (13 January), culture minister Chris Philp told MPs that there are a “number of areas” where the Online Safety Bill can be “improved substantially”, with a revised piece of legislation expected in the coming months.

Philp's remarks came as MPs debated a report by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, which said more offences needed to be covered. These included paid-for scam and fraudulent advertising, cyber flashing, content promoting self-harm, and the deliberate sending of flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy.

The Bill must also be clearer about what is specifically illegal online and proposed that pornography sites should have a legal duty to keep children off them regardless of whether they host user-to-user content, the report added among its other recommendations.

The long-awaited legislation is expected to force the biggest operators, such as Meta (formerly Facebook) and Google, to abide by a duty of care to users, overseen by Ofcom as the new regulator for the sector.

Concluding a Commons debate, Philp said: “We understand there are a number of areas where this Bill can be improved substantially. The government certainly has no monopoly on wisdom and we certainly intend to profit from the huge experience of the members of the committees and this House in making significant improvements to this Bill and it is our intention to introduce a revised and updated Bill before the end of the current session.”

Philp added: “I’m not going to be pre-announcing any firm commitments today because work is still ongoing, including the collective agreement process in government.

“But on fraud and paid-for advertising, we have heard the message of the joint committee, the Financial Conduct Authority, the financial services sector, campaigners, members of this House – it is a message that the government has absolutely heard and it’s something we very much hope we will be able to address when we bring forward the Bill, but I can’t make any specific commitments because the work is still ongoing.”

He added that "the message" has also been heard on the Law Commission’s work on communications offences that will “really tighten up some of the issues to do with what are essentially malicious or harmful communications, issues like cyber flashing and the issues to do with epilepsy”.

Philp continued: “We’re studying those Law Commission proposals very positively and very carefully, as the joint committee recommended that we do. We have also heard very clearly the messages concerning commercial pornography.

“We understand the issues presented by the fact the Bill as drafted does not cover that and again that is something we’re currently working on very, very hard indeed.”

Philp said that the government is also examining calls for users to be able to choose to protect themselves from anonymous content.

Earlier, Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse (Bath) shared her concern that perpetrators of cyber flashing were often able to get away with it and not face consequences.

She said: “Cyber flashing is a particularly prevalent form of online violence against women and disproportionately affects young women and girls – 76 per cent of girls aged 12 to 18 and 41 per cent of all women have reported being sent unsolicited penis images.

“Like real-life flashing, cyber flashing can frighten, it can humiliate, it can violate boundaries, it is a form of sexual harassment from which even the physical boundaries of a home offer no respite.”

Urging the government to close a “loophole” in the law, she added: “All too often the trauma they experience is trivialised.”

Conservative former culture minister Matt Warman agreed, saying: “Flashing is illegal in the real world, the idea that it might not be illegal online is absurd. We shouldn’t even be having that conversation.

“There are a huge number of pieces of this Bill where in fact it is simply a tidying-up exercise that our legislation has not kept pace with the changing nature of the digital world.”

He added there was often an issue of the “resources police allocate to online crime”, with online crime often “treated fundamentally differently”.

In November last year, Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes welcomed the Online Safety Bill as a means to enable the watchdog to better regulate big tech firms, while also acknowledging that keeping social networks in check will be “really challenging”. Dawes also suggested that some areas of the proposed laws should be tougher.

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