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Online Safety Bill amendments target state-backed disinformation

Under new changes to the proposed Online Safety Bill, social media platforms will have to proactively look for and remove harmful disinformation from foreign state actors.

The UK government is expected to present its amendments to the Online Safety Bill, which will make “foreign interference” a designated priority offence. 

The proposed change will impose a legal duty on social media companies, video streaming platforms and search engines to proactively identify and remove state-sponsored or state-linked disinformation. This would include tackling material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign state which is designed to influence or disrupt democratic or legal processes, the government said.

This amendment will also require platforms to tackle the spread of hacked information designed to undermine democratic institutions.

The changes to the Online Safety Bill come in part as a response to Russia’s activity around its invasion of Ukraine, which has led to Russian actors hacking servers in the UK and pranking users, such as the instance in which Ben Wallace, the secretary of state for defence, was videoed while he believed he was having a phone conversation with the Ukrainian prime minister. 

“The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponise social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions, often targeting the very victims of its aggression," said culture secretary Nadine Dorries. 

“We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets to use the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded. That’s why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.”

The government said the amendment will mean platforms will need to carry out risk assessments for content that could be considered as state-backed disinformation and put in place systems and processes to mitigate the chances of users encountering it. 

The amendment will link the National Security Bill with the Online Safety Bill and add the new foreign interference offence to the list of priority offences. These include terrorism, child sexual abuse, and fraud offences and which carry the threat of fines of up to £18m - or 10 per cent of a company’s global turnover - if sufficiently swift action is not taken to remove the offending material. 

“Online information operations are now a core part of state threats activity,” said security minister Damian Hinds.

“We need the big online platforms to do more to identify and disrupt this sort of coordinated inauthentic behaviour. That is what this proposed change in the law is about.”

The long-delayed Bill was originally published in draft form last year, but it later underwent ‘significant improvements’  in order to extend its efficacy. 

The new draft will undergo parliamentary scrutiny by a group of MPs next week. However, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has still warned about the risk of the new legislation providing the secretary of state and Ofcom with “unprecedented powers to define and limit speech", with limited parliamentary or judicial oversight. 

Moreover, the heads of 16 different campaign groups, including Hope Not Hate, Fair Vote UK and the 5Rights Foundation have called upon the government to make further amendments to the Online Safety Bill, warning that in its current form the proposed internet safety laws are “on the verge of being unworkable”.

In a letter sent to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and tech minister Chris Philp, the campaigners argue that, at the moment, the bill focuses too heavily on "trying to regulate what individual people can say online", rather than "getting to the heart of the problem and addressing tech companies’ systems and algorithms that promote and amplify harmful content”.

In the past, the bill has also been criticised in the past for failing to adequately protect children from pornography and sexual harassment in schools. 

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