After years of debate, the UK government’s Online Safety Bill has been enacted, with the aim of making the internet safer for children and increasing the accountability of tech companies for content on their platforms. The law places responsibility on firms to protect children from legal but harmful material and grants additional enforcement powers to the regulator, Ofcom.
Key provisions of the Online Safety Bill include:
- Requiring pornography websites to implement age verification mechanisms to prevent children from accessing explicit content.
- Mandating that platforms demonstrate their commitment to removing illegal content, including child sexual abuse, coercive behavior, extreme sexual violence, illegal immigration, promoting suicide and self-harm, animal cruelty, drug and weapon sales, and terrorism.
- Introducing new offenses, such as “cyber-flashing” (sending unsolicited sexual imagery online) and the sharing of “deepfake” pornography.
- Enhancing access to information for bereaved parents from tech firms regarding their deceased children.
One of the most controversial aspects of the legislation is its potential to compel messaging services to examine encrypted messages for child abuse material. Messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, and iMessage argue that such access would jeopardize user privacy, and some have threatened to withdraw from the UK if required to compromise message security. Proton, a privacy-focused email platform, has stated its willingness to challenge the government in court if it is asked to alter its end-to-end encryption.
The law carries significant penalties for tech companies that fail to comply, including fines of up to 10% of global revenue or £18 million, whichever is greater. Company executives could also face potential imprisonment as a punishment.
Ofcom, the regulator, will create codes of conduct to provide guidance on adhering to the new rules. While the act is often seen as a means to regulate Big Tech, it is expected to affect over 20,000 small businesses as well.
Advocates of the Online Safety Bill argue that it is a vital step in addressing harmful online content and behavior. However, critics contend that retrograde changes to the bill mean it does not go far enough in addressing harmful misinformation and disinformation on platforms while leaving decisions about freedom of expression in the hands of internet companies.
The law has faced opposition from messaging services, including WhatsApp, and has raised concerns about potential impacts on user privacy and online freedoms. Critics argue that it may not fully address the challenges posed by harmful online content and the responsibilities of tech companies in addressing these issues.