UK lawmakers have published the draft Online Safety Bill, adding a host of new criminal offences from cyberflashing to scam advertising.
The bill aims to regulate sites such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube, protecting users from harmful content. It will be overseen by regulator Ofcom.
“What’s illegal offline should be regulated online. For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless. A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and in some cases even loss of life,” says Damian Collins, chair of the joint committee on the draft bill.
“The Committee has set out recommendations to bring more offences clearly within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, give Ofcom the power in law to set minimum safety standards for the services they will regulate, and to take enforcement action against companies if they don’t comply.”
There are a number of new additions. Cyberflashing is to be made illegal, along with deliberately sending flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy with the intention of inducing a seizure.
Pornography sites will be required to keep children out, regardless of whether they host user-to-user content; and content or activity promoting self-harm will be made illegal, along with the promotion of suicide. Paid-for advertising, including scams and fraud, will also be covered by the bill.
Companies will be required to designate a senior manager at board level or reporting to the board as the “Safety Controller”, held responsible when there is clear evidence of repeated and systemic failings that result in a significant risk of serious harm to users. Users will be able to complain to an ombudsman when they believe that a platform has failed to comply.
The bill’s receiving a mixed reception.
“It is absolutely right that the committee has recommended that the Online Safety Bill tackles fraudulent paid-for advertising,” says Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy at consumer group Which?.
“It has acted on the overwhelming evidence it’s received of the devastating financial and emotional impact on innocent scam victims, when online platforms with some of the most sophisticated technology in the world fail to protect them.”
It’s also been welcomed by the Epilepsy Society and – with reservations that it doesn’t go far enough – by child protection organization the NSPCC.
However, others are less enthusiastic. Privacy and human rights groups say it suffers from overreach and, by allowing government intervention in the form of “guidance”, sets a worrying precedent.
“It hands a future authoritarian government exactly the tools it would need to systematically suppress dissent,” says the Open Rights Group’s Robert Sharp.
“In the meantime, these broad measures also send a terrible message to illiberal governments around the world, who will rush to insert a catch-all ‘government policy’ clause into their own regulatory laws.”