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Human rights lawyer calls for ‘total rewrite’ of Online Safety Bill

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The Online Safety Bill in its current form is a “mess” and needs a “total rewrite”, a leading digital human rights lawyer has said.

Dr Susie Alegre has written a legal opinion piece warning that the UK government's proposed internet safety laws fail to address the root causes of online harm, while also damaging free speech. 

The article was commissioned by the consumer campaign group SumOfUs. 

“The Online Safety Bill is a mess and needs a total rewrite. As it stands, it offers the worst of both worlds,” Alegre said. “It not only threatens free speech, freedom of expression and privacy, but fails to do enough to tackle the real drivers of online harm, such as social media companies actively recommending posts about self-harm, which contributed to the tragic suicide of teenager Molly Russell.”

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”.

The legislation aims to establish a framework for online regulation which upholds freedom of expression while also making the internet safe from child predators, extremists and other bad actors, proposing significant fines for companies which fail to deal with online abuse as well as possible criminal prosecution for executives.

The passing of the bill was delayed by Boris Johnson's resignation. However, Liz Truss' new government has pledged to reintroduce the piece of legislation to Parliament shortly, with Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan saying this week that ministers were working “flat out” to deliver it having previously suggested some tweaks would be made to the legislation.

In her first PMQs, Truss discussed the bill and confirmed it would not be passed in its current form.

“There are some issues that we need to deal with," she said. "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."

In her article, Alegre said the bill “focuses too heavily on moderating content and the impact of user-generated content on individuals”, meaning that it “fails to put serious checks on the systems that drive online harms, in particular the many ways that personal data is used for profiling, targeting and curation of content”.

Alegre also said that attempts to satisfy competing demands from campaigners on all sides meant that the Bill was “simultaneously too narrow and too broad to address the underlying issues that lead to online harms”.

The human rights lawyer also referred to the case of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old from Harrow, north London, who took her own life in 2017 after "suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content," according to Andrew Walker, the senior coroner for north London. 

The coroner ruled she saw images that "shouldn't have been available for a child to see", including "images, video clips and text concerned with self-harm and suicide, or that were otherwise negative or depressing in nature".

Following the inquest's findings, Molly Russell's father said "there is no time for delay" in legislating to stop children seeing harmful content online, and expressed concerns that the Online Safety Bill would be further delayed. 

"Today’s harrowing verdict in the Molly Russell case has once again highlighted the urgent need for policymakers to take emerging technologies that pose a serious safety risk to individuals, most notably children, seriously," said Catherine Allen, co-author of the IET’s 'Safeguarding the Metaverse' report and member of the IET’s Digital Policy Panel, and child safety advocate and IET Honorary Fellow, Carol Vorderman MA(Cantab) MBE in a statement. 

"It is vital legislation within the new Online Safety Bill fully protects children from online harm, particularly unregulated content. It currently does not go far enough and this is dangerous." 

While child safety campaigners have repeatedly called for more protections and tougher restrictions on content moderation, free speech advocates have raised concerns over the risks of online censorship and the "unnprecedented powers" it would confer to Ofcom, which would be the regulator responsible for enforcing it.

Moreover, in a recent 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".  

Responding to Alegre's assessment, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said: “This is a completely inaccurate characterisation of the bill, which will put much-needed responsibility on tech firms to protect children and tackle criminal activity, including for the way their algorithms drive online harm.

“The law’s focus is on tech firms’ systems and processes, not on the regulation of individual pieces of content. However, ministers are considering how to further strengthen the bill’s protections for free speech.”

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