The government’s Online Safety Bill has now been altered so big tech companies do not have to remove legal but harmful content on their sites.
The bill, championed by former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, was criticised for supposedly undermining free speech – but now it’s being scrutinised for not being effective enough.
Here’s what you need to know about the government’s attempts to regulate the internet.
What is the bill about?
The bill, which the government intends to pass into law in the UK before the summer of 2023, is meant to regulate parts of the internet.
The new law is going to be primarily regulated by media watchdog Ofcom, but it will also have to work with the victims’ commissioner, the domestic-abuse commissioner and the children’s commissioner to decide the new parameters for tech companies.
What is in the bill now?
Regulations around ‘legal but harmful’ posts dropped
The Online Safety Bill used to include a section which pushed the “largest, highest-risk platforms” such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, to reduce exposure to legal but harmful material which can be accessed by adults.
This included content which promotes topics like self harm and eating disorders.
Now, in its place, the bill wants tech giants to introduce a new system which means adults can get more control to filter out harmful content.
If the companies do not introduce this, they will face large fines – up to 10% of their worldwide revenue – and “huge reputational damage” according to current culture secretary Michelle Donelan.
Age restrictions on legal content remain
Adults will still be able to access and post anything which is legal as long as that platform allows it, but there will be limits for content children can see.
Tech giants also have to assess and publish the risk of potential harm to children on their sites, explain how they will enforce age limits.
Platforms will still have to remove any illegal content and material that violates their terms and conditions.
But, accounts will not be removed unless they have broken the law or the rules of the platform.
The government has dubbed these new rules a “triple-shield” of protection, which also allows free speech.
What do critics of the new bill say?
Dorries claimed in a mid-November interview with The House magazine that the government was “going to have a lot of explaining to do” if it dropped the obligation for platforms to remove “legal but harmful” posts.
“There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why the bill needs to be altered in any way,” she claimed.
“Mainly because all of the difficult and contentious stages of the bill, including legal but harmful, have already been passed. It’s already through. Our own party voted for it.”
She added: “Michelle [Donelan] has been in the job five minutes and does not understand enough about it.”
Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, also said the decision offers a free pass to “abusers and takes the public for a ride”.
Another Labour MP Sarah Champion hit out at the altered bill too, tweeting: “Plan to make big tech remove harmful content axed.
“Five years ago when the bill was first announced, we led the world, now it’s been so watered down it’s a joke.”
Meanwhile, mental health charity Samaritans’ Julie Bentley, criticised the age restrictions, noting: “The damaging impact that this type of content has doesn’t end on your 18th birthday.”
She added: “Increasing the controls that people have is no replacement for holding sites to account through the law and this feels very much like the government snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
There’s also been criticism from the parents of Molly Russell, who died by suicide in 2017, at the age of 14.
Her death was driven by harmful content she had seen online, and her family have been at the forefront of campaigns to bring in stricter regulations with the internet ever since.
Her father Ian Russell told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that it “It is very hard to understand” why the bill was changed even though it received a full reading in the Commons in the summer.
Russell speculated the decision to cut key parts of the bill may have been politically motivated, to get it through parliament more quickly.
Open Rights Group’s Dr Monica Horten, said there’s also a lack of clarity about how the companies will know the age of its users.
“Companies are likely to use AI systems analysing biometric data including head and hand measurements and voices. This is a recipe for a gated internet, currently subject to minimal regulation and run by third- party operators,” Dr Horton explained.
Campaign group the Centre for Countering Digital Hate also said platforms might feel “off the hook” as the focus moves to “bad actors and dangerous content”.
But the chief executive Imran Ahmed said the group was happy to see the government “had strengthened the law against encouragement of self-harm and distribution of intimate images without consent.”
He also tweeted: “So glad the dispiritingly stupid debate had this summer falsely claiming the Online Safety Bill is too ‘woke’ is definitely over.”
Who is happy about the altered bill?
Donelan has denied that these changes equate to watering down the bill, and claimed the tech giants know how to protect people online.
“The content that Molly Russell saw will not be allowed because of this bill and there will no longer be cases like that coming forward because we’re preventing that from happening,” the culture secretary told BBC.
“These are massive, massive corporations that have the money, the knowhow and the tech to be able to adhere to this.”
Current international trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch previously described the bill as “legislating for hurt feelings”, and claimed it paved the way for censoring legal speech.
The changes also come after nine senior Tories, including Lord Frost, David Davis and Steve Baker, complained that the clause could be used by Labour in the future to clamp down on free speech.
And, although the “legal but harmful” clause has now been dropped, Davis told the BBC that he is still concerned about the threat to privacy which could undermine “end-to-end encryption”.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.