Online Safety Bill: United for a Safer Internet

Online Safety Bill: United for a Safer Internet
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After extensive deliberation, the government has officially passed the contentious Online Safety Bill into law, with the primary objective of enhancing internet safety for children:

It aims to compel technology companies to assume greater accountability for the content hosted on their platforms. According to Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan, it guarantees the long-term online safety of the British population, though some have voiced worries regarding its potential impact on privacy. Messaging services such as WhatsApp have even hinted at the possibility of pulling out of the UK due to the legislation.

Unveiling the Online Safety Bill: What You Need to Know?

The newly enacted law places the responsibility on companies to safeguard children from legal yet harmful content, while empowering the regulator, Ofcom, with enhanced enforcement authority.

This legislation introduces a set of fresh regulations, including the obligation for pornography websites to prevent minors from accessing explicit material by verifying their ages. Additionally, online platforms are mandated to demonstrate their commitment to eradicating illegal content including:

  • child sexual abuse
  • controlling or coercive behaviour
  • extreme sexual violence
  • illegal immigration and people smuggling
  • encouraging or aiding in self-destructive actions.
  • encouraging or enabling self-injury
  • harm to animals
  • the illicit sale of drugs or weapons
  • acts of terror or terrorism.

The new law has introduced additional offenses, such as “cyber-flashing,” which involves sending unwanted sexual images online, and the dissemination of “deepfake” pornography, in which artificial intelligence is employed to insert someone’s likeness into explicit material.

Furthermore, the act includes provisions aimed at simplifying the process for grieving parents to access information about their children from technology companies.

What additional provisions are included in the Online Safety Bill?

The provisions within the legislation that may be employed to require messaging services to inspect encrypted messages for child abuse material have generated significant controversy.

Messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal, and iMessage argue that they are unable to access or monitor users’ messages without jeopardizing the privacy safeguards that currently exist for all users. As a result, they have even indicated their willingness to exit the UK rather than compromise the security of messages.

Proton, an email platform known for its emphasis on privacy, has stated its readiness to engage in legal battles with the government should it be instructed to modify its end-to-end encryption protocols.

Proton CEO Andy Yen expressed concern, stating that the bill presents a genuine threat to the internet as we currently know it by granting the government the authority to access individuals’ private messages. He questions why such intrusions would be tolerated in the digital world when they wouldn’t be in the physical world.

The government has countered by stating that the regulator Ofcom would only request tech companies to access messages when “feasible technology” for doing so had been developed.

Wikipedia has previously stated its inability to comply with certain aspects of the legislation, including age verification.

Although the act is frequently discussed in the context of regulating Big Tech, government sources have indicated that it will impact over 20,000 small businesses as well.

Who will oversee and enforce the Online Safety Bill?

Violating the regulations may lead to penalties that include fines of up to 10% of a tech company’s global revenue or £18 million, whichever is greater. Additionally, company executives could potentially face imprisonment as a punitive measure.

Ofcom is tasked with formulating codes of conduct to offer guidance on compliance with the new rules, with the first draft codes set to be released on November 9. The CEO of Ofcom, Dame Melanie Dawes, has addressed concerns surrounding the regulator’s new role by emphasizing that Ofcom is not a censorship entity, and its expanded authority does not revolve around removing content. She emphasized that their primary responsibility is to address the fundamental causes of harm. Importantly, they will also take into account individuals’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

What are the opinions expressed by activists or advocates?

The law received a positive response from various organizations and individuals:

  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission expressed its support for the law, considering it a crucial initial step in addressing harmful online content and behavior.
  • Sir Peter Wanless, the NSPCC chief executive, stated that this law would significantly enhance the safety of children across the UK in their daily lives. He also acknowledged that this progress was partly a result of the remarkable advocacy by survivors of abuse and young individuals.
  • Advocates featured individuals such as Ian Russell, whose 14-year-old daughter, Molly, tragically took her own life in 2017 after being exposed to suicide and self-harm content on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.

    Full Fact, an organization specializing in fact-checking, initially in favor of the bill, expressed concerns about “retrograde changes” made to it. They believed that these changes did not sufficiently address the way platforms handle harmful misinformation and disinformation.

    Glen Tarman, the Head of Policy and Advocacy at Full Fact, went on to say that these changes leave freedom of expression under the control of profit-driven internet companies, allowing dangerous health misinformation to proliferate unchecked.

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