Understanding the UK’s Online Safety Bill

It’s no secret that online security has become a paramount concern in today’s digital era. We face many threats to our data and finances, not only from cybercriminals but also on a personal level from things like online harassment and the rampant spread of harmful content. This is where the UK’s Online Safety Bill comes in — a new piece of legislation that aims to protect the privacy and security of internet users in the United Kingdom.

Read on as we cover the specifics of this legislation and how it may affect your Internet experience.

What is the online safety bill?

As the name suggests, the Online Safety Bill is a new piece of legislation from the UK lawmakers, designed to create a safer Internet for the citizens they represent. While there have been similar laws in the past, this bill is much more comprehensive.

Let’s start with the main focus of this bill: protecting children and other vulnerable individuals online. The Online Safety Bill seeks to accomplish this by pressuring tech companies to moderate and remove harmful content. This includes social networks, search engines and any other places of mass interaction online.

So what happens to tech companies that fail in these duties? These companies would theoretically be subject to heavy fines and even a total ban of their operations in the UK. In the interest of balance, the bill also has a clause on safeguarding freedom of expression among citizens.

The bill specifically states that the same tech companies they are forcing to moderate content must not violate any user’s right to express their views online. Doing so would be considered a form of censorship and at the very least, grounds for restrictions.

Challenges in enforcement

As you might have guessed, the Online Safety Bill isn’t something that can be easily enforced in the UK. Tech companies are at a loss for solutions to comply with this new law. In fact, the bill appears to be a true paradox in its attempt to balance freedom of expression and digital content moderation.

The Online Safety Bill will guide tech companies on what qualifies as harmful content online. Still, many have already raised doubt on this legislation’s practicality even when it was first announced in early 2019.

Nevertheless, this new Internet law in the UK is the most ambitious so far regarding digital content regulation. If at all successful, the bill will set a precedent that may lead other countries to follow suit.

What will the UK online safety bill mean for you?

If you’re reading this and reside in the UK, you might wonder how this bill will affect you. One thing that the new bill promises is an increase in social media safety. But what exactly that experience looks like remains to be seen.

One thing worth pointing out is the Online Safety Bill’s focus on protecting children online. One of the biggest factors that prompted parliament to sign off on the bill is the Molly Russell case. This inquest presented a clear example of the dangers posed by unregulated digital content to children.

Molly Russell was a 14-year-old girl who took her own life in November 2017. This was after she found unregulated Twitter and Instagram content promoting hate speech and self-harm. Her case was one of many that highlighted the need for more stringent laws to keep children safe online.

Having said that, citizens need to be aware of the challenges surrounding implementing such a law. While the bill seeks to stomp out only harmful digital content itself, there is no doubt a point at which it may begin to clash with one’s freedom of thought and expression. We can look forward to more and hopefully more nuanced discussions on the proper limits of free speech and better regulations for tech companies.

Tech companies are sure to act decisively given the looming consequences. That also means users can expect significant changes in how these platforms operate. For instance, you may find fewer updates on your social feeds. Another possibility is that social networks may stop matching your interests with others. Only time will tell how this new legislation’s pragmatics and cultural consequences will play out.

Online Safety Bill summary

  • Duty of Care. Tech companies in the UK must uphold their social contract of ensuring the safety and well-being of their users. Online platforms that fail in this duty can be held legally accountable, including (but not limited to) heavy fines and a total ban in the UK.
  • Types of harmful online content. The Online Safety Bill will initially focus on two categories. Priority Category One (content harmful to adults) and Content Harmful to Children.
  • Freedom of expression vs content moderation. The bill mandates tech companies to remove harmful content from their platforms. At the same time, it also requires them to safeguard freedom of expression for users. This means balancing the removal of harmful content while upholding the right to free speech.
  • System of Appeals and Complaints. A system that will enable users to submit complaints or appeal decisions related to moderation.
  • Ofcom (the regulating body for telecommunications in the UK) will serve as Online Safety Regulator. As such, the bill grants them additional powers to enforce compliance among tech companies in the UK.
  • User Redress. The Online Safety Bill provides the legal framework for users to sue tech companies.
  • Transparency. Tech companies will provide the UK government with annual reports. These documents are to be made accessible to the public to ensure transparency.

When will the Online Safety Bill become law?

The UK government has not released an exact timetable for the Online Safety Bill. However, the fact that the Online Safety Bill was approved by the parliament last September 19, 2023, means that it’ll be enacted into law soon.

All that’s left is for the bill to be granted Royal Assent, expected to happen by the end of October 2023. After that, the bill becomes an “act of parliament,” meaning it can be legally enforced in the UK. In the meantime, tech companies not ready for the change can expect a grace period of 3 to 6 months. So, UK citizens won’t see the full impact of the Online Safety Bill until mid-2024.

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