Handout photo issued by UK Parliament of the Prime Minister Liz Truss speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Truss to ‘tweak’ Online Safety Bill to protect free speech

Image credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

UK Prime Minister Liz Truss said new internet safety laws need “some tweaks” to ensure they protect children and free speech.

The Prime Minister said the Online Safety Bill will continue its progress through Parliament but confirmed the legislation will not be passed in its current form.

The Online Safety Bill has been presented by the government as a ground-breaking law that will protect the privacy and safety of children in the digital sphere. Former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has said it will make the UK “the safest place in the world for our children to go online”.

In her first PMQS Truss discussed the legislation, saying: “There are some issues that we need to deal with. What I want to make sure is that we protect the under-18s from harm but we also make sure free speech is allowed, so there may be some tweaks required.

“But certainly he is right that we need to protect people’s safety online.”

The bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, is set to require tech giants like Facebook and Google to protect users from harmful content for the first time, with penalties for breaching the new rules including fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover.

Under the current draft of the bill, published last year, senior executives of online platforms could end up in prison if they do not act on illegal content published on their sites. To avoid this, social media companies will be required to double down on content monitoring and impose more strict age verification processes.

However, the Online Safety Bill has faced harsh criticism regarding the powers it would confer to Ofcom, which would be the regulator responsible for enforcing it. 

Last month, the Institute of Economic Affairs warned the bill could hand the Secretary of State and Ofcom “unprecedented powers to define and limit speech, with limited parliamentary or judicial oversight”. Moreover, in a new poll conducted by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, some 46 per cent of IT experts surveyed said the bill was not workable, with only 14 per cent  believing the legislation was ‘fit for purpose’.

Although Truss has confirmed there will be changes made to the Bill to protect free speech, Downing Street has declined to provide details regarding the “tweaks” required. 

"It will be for the Culture Secretary to set out the details of that; you will appreciate they were appointed yesterday," said the Prime Minister’s official spokesman. “But I think she (Truss) was clear on what she wanted to achieve with that deal, both protecting those under 18 and ensuring that free speech was protected.”

However, not everyone is against the legislation. Last August, an open letter led by the NSPCC charity (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) and signed by the parents of children who have been groomed expressed frustration that the long-delayed bill was held up yet again last month in its passage through Parliament, due to the Conservative Party leadership election. 

Now that Truss has been appointed into office, the charity hopes there can be progress in the passing of the bill, which has been years in the making. 

“The Prime Minister is right to commit to delivering an Online Safety Bill that protects children from harm and, four years in the making, is needed more than ever," said NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless.

“With every passing month, we are likely to see an average of 3,500 sexual abuse crimes take place against children online.

"It’s therefore crucial the legislation becomes law without delay and we stand ready to work with the government to ensure the Bill systemically protects children while also ensuring the fundamental rights of all internet users are guaranteed.”

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