Despite the endless knowledge it offers, the internet (and social media particularly) can also be a place of great harm, particularly for young and vulnerable people. The extremely tragic cases of child suicides have been widely reported, sometimes largely because of harmful content children found online. To tackle this critical issue, the government is in the process of trying to pass a new ‘Online Safety Bill’, an extremely ambitious and wide-reaching law with the aim of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
The Online Safety Bill is designed to protect both children and adults online and has had many rounds of changes so far, given how critical the issues it covers are. At the point of publication of this article, the proposed bill has passed through the committee stage at the House of Lords.
Whilst it’s extremely important that action is taken quickly to target online harm and this is a concern globally, this potential new UK law could have huge implications for businesses, by introducing extremely stringent new rules and very heavy fines for failing to comply with them.
In this article, we’ll set out what the Online Safety Bill is and what it could mean for businesses.
What is the Online Safety Bill?
A key aim of the Online Safety Bill is to make the internet safe and it will (amongst other obligations) place a new duty of care on certain online platforms, requiring them to carefully protect users and act against harmful content. This is particularly important for children and builds upon the ICO’s Age-Appropriate Design Code, see our article on this here.
A fundamental intention of this law is to safeguard against potentially very harmful types of internet content, for example illegal pornography and trolling.
The prospective new law is extremely complex and businesses who fall under its scope would need to comply with various obligations including conducting risk assessments, taking steps to mitigate the risk of harm to their users, tackling illegal content on their services and increasing user control.
The government’s guidance on the new Online Safety Bill states that it will protect children by making social media platforms:
- Remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place. This includes removing content promoting self-harm.
- Prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content.
- Enforce age limits and age-checking measures.
- Ensure the risks and dangers posed to children on the largest social media platforms are more transparent, including by publishing risk assessments.
- Provide parents and children with clear and accessible ways to report problems online when they do arise.
In addition, the government’s guidance refers to adults alike being protected, by requiring platforms to:
- Remove all illegal content.
- Remove content that is banned by their own terms and conditions.
- Empower adult internet users with tools so that they can tailor the type of content they see and can avoid potentially harmful content if they do not want to see it on their feeds.
The government recently announced its intention to add various new amendments to the Online Safety Bill, to bolster the protection it offers, as set out in its press release.
The tightened measures include:
- Making it easier for bereaved parents and coroners to access social media data.
- Making Ofcom research into potential harms arising from app stores.
- Making online providers (such as pornography services) impose age verification or estimation measures to stop children accessing their services.
- Offences around ‘revenge porn’ will be increased, including a 2-year sentence for threatening to share intimate images.
Minister for Technology and the Digital Economy, Paul Scully noted the importance of this new law, stating that
This Government will not allow the lives of our children to be put at stake whenever they go online; whether that is through facing abuse or viewing harmful content that could go on to have a devastating impact on their lives. To prevent any further tragedy and build a better future for our children, we are acting robustly and with urgency to make the Online Safety Bill the global standard for protecting our children.
These additional measures show how seriously the new proposed law aims to tackle online harm.
What does it mean for businesses in the UK?
Bringing in new regulation to address illegal and harmful content online is a huge step forward, but we expect it will also be very difficult for companies to comply with in practice.
The Online Safety Bill will apply to businesses who provide online ‘user-to-user services’ and online search services. It won’t just be very large social media companies who will fall under these rules. Various companies (for example search engines, online gaming platforms, advertising services, e-commerce platforms and marketplaces) will need to put new systems in place to protect users and comply with this new law. These laws will regulate services which target UK consumers, even if the services are not based in the UK. The legislation will therefore have huge consequences and its proposals have caused debate around industry experts, who are concerned about how these stringent rules will impact various issues such as privacy, free speech and business innovation. We suggest businesses taking advice to check if their activities fall within the scope of the new law.
In terms of enforcement, the new law will empower regulators to take control and would be enforced and monitored by Ofcom. Ofcom would have responsibility to ensure that platforms have processes in place to comply with these rules and the power to fine businesses who don’t comply. The fines which could be imposed will be up to £18 million or 10% of a business’ annual turnover, whichever is higher. Senior managers could also face criminal prosecution. Clearly, particularly given the fines and criminal offences, the implications of getting this wrong could be catastrophic for businesses.
Do we need to do anything now?
Although this law is not yet in force, now is the time for businesses to carefully review the proposed Online Safety Bill and consider in advance whether they need to comply with it. This is particularly important for businesses providing online content, who should take advice on these rules.
The stringent rules of the Online Safety Bill may mean businesses have to seriously change the way in which they operate, for example, businesses may need to start putting in place new age verification systems and monitoring and reviewing potentially harmful content.
It would be sensible for business likely to be affected to plan ahead now, by reviewing their platforms and policies and monitoring their content, considering how best to practically implement the various potential upcoming rules and continue to monitor the development of the Online Safety Bill.
The new rules brought in by the Online Safety Bill will be significant and it’s likely that businesses are going to need to put a lot of extra time, money and resources into making sure they comply, particularly given the grave implications for breaching these laws.
We are continuing to monitor developments on the Online Safety Bill and will report on it further once it comes into force. We suggest that businesses likely to be affected start thinking about the Online Safety Bill now so that they are ready to implement the rules when they come into force.
This article sets out some of the key issues around this complex forthcoming legislation, however the Online Safety Bill has already been subject to various scrutiny and the draft law has already seen several changes. Please contact our team if you would like initial advice on this topic and how you can prepare for the potential implications when the Online Safety Bill comes into force.