uk parliament

Online Safety Bill passes second reading as MPs call for tighter definitions of hate

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The UK’s Online Safety Bill has passed its first reading in the Commons but opposition MPs have called for a tightening on what defines hate speech and other harmful communications.

Digital minister Nadine Dorries said the new rules will see social media firms “held accountable to their own terms and conditions”.

Speaking to the House of Commons she said: “They will be unable any longer to allow illegal content to be published, and we will also be listing in secondary legislation offences that will be legal but harmful. We will be holding those tech giants to account.”

The long-delayed Bill was finally published in draft form last May and proposes significant fines for companies that fail to deal with online abuse as well as possible criminal prosecution for executives.

The 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.

“We promised legislation that would hold social media platforms to the promises they have made to their own users – their own stated terms and conditions – promises that too often are broken with no repercussions,” Dorries added.

“We promised legislation that would bring some fundamental accountability to the online world. That legislation is here in the form of the ground-breaking Online Safety Bill. We are leading the way and free democracies across the globe are watching carefully to see how we progress this legislation.”

The Bill will also ensure that systems are in place so that when illegal content does slip through moderating systems, such as child sex abuse and terrorist content, it will be quickly identified and removed from the site.

“If platforms fail in any of those basic responsibilities, Ofcom will be empowered to pursue a range of actions against them, depending on the situation, and, if necessary, to bring down the full weight of the law upon them,” Dorries said.

Once published, Ofcom will be equipped with a broad range of powers to regulate tech firms including the ability to fine them either up to 10 per cent of annual turnover or £18m (whichever is higher).

Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell welcomed measures introduced to tackle anonymous abuse.

But she added: “We still don’t know what the Government will designate as ‘legal but harmful’, which makes it very difficult to assess whether this Bill goes far enough or indeed too far.

“I worry that these definitions are left entirely to the secretary of state to define as well.

“A particularly prevalent and pernicious form of online hate is misogyny but violence against women and girls is not mentioned at all in the Bill, a serious oversight.

“Which platforms will be regulated by this Bill is also arbitrary and flawed. Only the largest platforms will be required to tackle harmful content, yet smaller platforms – which can still have a significant user base who are highly motivated, well organised and particularly harmful – won’t.

She added: “Ofcom should regulate based on risk, not just size.”

Conservative former minister Andrew Percy agreed, saying the Bill needed to ensure that smaller platforms are as well-regulated as larger ones.

He said: “These small platforms are a haven for white supremacists, for incels, for conspiracy theorists, for anti-Semites. It’s where they gather, it’s where they converse, it’s where they share and spew their hate.”

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