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Campaigners criticise the ‘watering down’ of the Online Safety Bill

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The UK government has dropped plans to force tech firms to remove internet content that is "harmful but legal", after facing backlash from companies and free speech advocates.

The new draft of the government's Online Safety Bill has softened its requirements of so-called 'Big Tech' firms, prompting criticism from digital safety advocates. 

The much-delayed Online Safety Bill has been presented by the government as a ground-breaking law that will target online racism, sexual abuse, bullying, fraud and other harmful material often found on the internet. 

In its original form, the bill gave regulators wide-ranging powers to sanction digital and social media companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. It proposed significant fines for those firms which failed to deal with online abuse as well as possible criminal prosecution for executives.

Originally due to be presented to Parliament earlier this year in the summer, the bill was delayed due to the Conservative Party leadership race. While the legislation was held in limbo, critic's pushed for a "total rewrite" of the bill, citing its potential to harm free speech. 

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has now dropped part of the bill, acknowledging that it could "over-criminalise" online content. The new draft will now require companies to set out clear terms of service and stick to them.

In this version, companies will be free to allow adults to post and see offensive or harmful material, as long as it is not illegal. The legislation also requires firms to help people avoid seeing content that is legal but may be harmful through warnings, content moderation or other means.

Platforms that pledge to ban racist, homophobic or other offensive content and then fail to live up to the promise can be fined up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover.

Digital secretary Michelle Donelan said the change removed the risk that "tech firms or future governments could use the laws as a license to censor legitimate views". 

These amendments mark a win for free speech proponents including Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who claimed they would “legislate for hurt feelings”, as well as officials at the Institute of Economic Affairs who warned that the bill could hand the Secretary of State and Ofcom “unprecedented powers to define and limit speech, with limited parliamentary or judicial oversight”.

However, the changes have faced criticism from other corners of the Tory party and from campaigners who defend tougher restrictions on content moderation. 

Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries warned that women would “kick off” about dropping the duty to remove not only illegal content but also any material named in the legislation as legal but potentially harmful – such as the glorification of self-harm or eating disorders.

Ian Russell, the father of Molly, a 14-year-old who killed herself after viewing self-harm content online said the changes to the bill are “very hard to understand”.

“What we need is the assurance from the Secretary of State that this watering down of the bill by removing the legal but harmful content is at least boosted in other measures to make it safe for not just young people but for all of us to be online," he told the BBC. 

“I don’t see how you can see the removal of a whole clause as anything other than a watering down.”

Donelan has denied these accusations, saying protections for children have been strengthened and it would be a “gross misrepresentation” to argue otherwise.

“Nothing is getting watered down or taken out when it comes to children,” she added. “The legal but harmful aspect was pertaining to adults. Content that is harmful or could hurt children that is not illegal, so is legal, will still be removed under this version of the bill.

“The content that Molly Russell saw will not be allowed as a result of this bill.”

Donovan added that the bill would become law “during this parliamentary session” and would serve as a “blueprint” for boosting internet safety for countries around the world.

The Online Safety Bill was originally presented by the government as a ground-breaking law that will make the UK “the safest place in the world for our children to go online”.

The latest changes come after other updates to the bill, including criminalising the encouragement of self-harm, “downblousing” and the sharing of pornographic deepfakes.

For every day the bill is delayed, the NSPCC estimates that more than 100 grooming and other such crimes could have been recorded. The organisation also revealed there has been a 35 per cent rise in Childline counselling sessions about online grooming in the last six months.

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