The UK’s Online Safety Bill for a “safer Internet” has passed its final parliamentary debate and will become law soon, following years of deliberation.
This sets tougher standards for social media platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube.
The bill, which was proposed some years ago, has been heavily altered, and 2022 marked a significant shift from “tackling legal but harmful” content to putting emphasis on child protection, according to a Reuters report. This also means the removal of any harmful and illegal content on social media platforms, in addition to preventing such content from appearing.
Technology secretary Michelle Donelan described the bill as a “game-changing” piece of legislation.
“Today, this government is taking an enormous step forward in our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online,” she said.
Media regulator Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes said this was “a major milestone in the mission to create a safer online environment for children and adults in the UK.”
“Very soon after the Bill receives Royal Assent, we’ll consult on the first set of standards that we’ll expect tech firms to meet in tackling online harms, including child sexual exploitation, fraud, and terrorism,” she added.
According to the UK government, the bill is expected to bring clarity to online platforms while providing parents and children with clear “and accessible ways to report problems online when they arise.”
The bill requires social media platforms to prevent children from accessing harmful or age-inappropriate content like pornography. They are expected to enforce some age-checking measures as well as age limits.
Online platforms are therefore expected to show their commitment to remove harmful and illegal content that includes child sexual abuse, extreme sexual violence, coercive behaviour, illegal immigration or smuggling of people, animal cruelty, terrorism, selling illegal drugs, promoting self-harm, and promoting or facilitating suicide.
The bill has added new offenses to include cyber-flashing and the sharing of deep-fake pornography.
According to the BBC, it also includes measures that make it easier for bereaved parents to get information about their children from tech firms.
Social media platforms that do not comply with the new rules could face fines of up to 10% of their global annual revenue or up to 18 million pounds ($22.3 million).
Messaging platforms like Meta’s WhatsApp have expressed concerns that the bill will require them to break the end-to-end encryption. They feel this will undermine communication privacy as well as thwart people’s freedom to communicate as they please.
But the government has indicated that end-to-end encryption has not been banned, but the bill only requires platforms to take action that stops child abuse on their platforms. This means they should develop technologies that scan encrypted messages.
However, the Reuters report shows companies hold that end-to-end encryption and scanning messages are “fundamentally incompatible.”
Another online platform, Wikipedia, has also indicated it will not comply with some of the bill’s requirements. Its founder, Jimmy Wales, sees the bill as an instrument of “state censorship”, and has criticized the government’s approach as bad.
According to him, this is “bad for human rights, bad for internet safety,” and a “bad law.”
He pledged Wikipedia “will not age-gate nor selectively censor articles under any circumstances.”
Apple is another tech firm that is against the bill’s requirement to scan encrypted messages and earlier called for an amendment to the bill to offer protection on end-to-end encryptions.
“End-to-end encryption is a critical capability that protects the privacy of journalists, human rights activists, and diplomats,” said Apple in a statement to the BBC.
“It also helps everyday citizens defend themselves from surveillance and identify fraud, theft, and data breaches. The Online Safety Bill poses a serious threat to this protection and could put UK citizens at greater risk.”