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Boris Johnson's resignation puts Online Safety Bill on hold

Parliamentary discussion of the UK's new Online Safety Bill – originally scheduled for next week – has been postponed until the autumn, when a new Prime Minister is expected to be in place.

The Online Safety Bill, one of the landmark pieces of legislation of Boris Johnson's government, has been placed on hold until a new Prime Minister is in place.

The bill was making its way through Parliament and was scheduled to be passed over the next few weeks. However, its approval will now be postponed until September at the earliest, when the Conservative Party is expected to elect a new leader to replace Boris Johnson in the role of UK Prime Minister. 

Hailed as groundbreaking regulation of the tech sector, the Online Safety Bill would force social media and other user-generated content-based sites to remove illegal material from their platforms, with a particular emphasis on protecting children from harmful content.

The bill would also ensure the largest content platforms – such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – are responsible for removing forms of “legal but harmful” content that promote self-harm or eating disorders, facing fines of up to £18m, or 10 per cent of their annual global turnover, should they fail to do so. 

The delay has sparked a debate over the importance of the legislation, with some campaigners labelling it as a “devastating blow” for online safety while others have perceived it as an opportunity to amend the bill's approach. 

Former MP Ruth Smeeth, now chief executive of the free speech campaign group Index On Censorship, said the delay is “great news” and claimed the bill is “fundamentally broken”.

“It was absolutely wrong to try and push through a bill that takes away the British public’s free speech rights while Parliament was distracted,” she said.

Former minister Kemi Badenoch said the postponement was the “right move”, as the piece of legislation was "in no fit state to become law". Badenoch, who is standing for the position of leader of the Conservative Party, tweeted that, should she be elected to become Prime Minister, she would “ensure the bill doesn’t overreach”.

However, the bill's delay has prompted harsh criticism from campaigners that have claimed that it would be detrimental in the fight to keep children safe online.

Shadow culture minister Alex Davies-Jones said the delay was "an absolutely devastating blow and another example of the Tories prioritising their own ideals over people's safety online". 

The Online Safety Bill was expected to clear the House of Commons later this month, before proceeding to be discussed in the House of Lords.

However, a Labour source told the BBC that the parliamentary time to discuss the legislation had been reduced due to the party's demand for a formal vote of no confidence in the government and the Prime Minister. When faced with the choice of reducing time to discuss either the Online Safety Bill or the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, "the Online Safety Bill lost out", the source said. 

The legislation will now be pushed back to the autumn, after a new leader of the Conservative Party is elected on 5 September, which some campaigners say is too long for a piece of legislation as crucial as this one. 

“We are living in an era when safeguarding in the online sphere does not have parity with safeguarding in the offline world," said Tim Cairns, senior policy officer at social policy charity Care. "Care is particularly concerned about the array of disturbing and harmful content children encounter online, including pornography, which they can access with ease.

“Failing to deliver this change would amount to a second betrayal of children, who deserve help and protection from those in power.”

The first draft paper of the Online Safety Bill was introduced by former Prime Minister Theresa May back in 2019, and the legislation has been through several rounds of amendments since then, to tackle accusations that it would "harm free speech" and improve provisions to reduce online misinformation and children's access to pornographic content

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