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There's A New Sheriff Online: UK's New Online Safety Bill



By: Soh Yi Fei Titus


The Online Safety Bill has been subjected to thorough legislative scrutiny since it was first introduced to Parliament in May 2021 and is finally in its final stages in the House of Commons [1]. Given the increasing pervasiveness of Internet usage, it is par for the course that more children are accessing online content and materials, and more regularly too. As such, there may seem to be a public exigency for more stringent duties to be placed on online platforms to protect young people from harmful content. Consequently, the Government introduced the Online Safety Bill, which has engendered continuing controversy. Amongst other regulations, the Bill seeks to introduce the policing of “legal but harmful” abuses such as racism or bullying and tighten the age verification process [2]. While most online platforms already have their own pre-existing regulations to police online behaviour, the Bill would be forcing Big Tech companies to police their networks in a more demanding manner. One of the Bill’s most notable amendments includes the addition of banned content such as those that encourage self-harm, suicide, and deepfake pornography (which refers to fake sexualised images or videos of people made with editing software). This amendment was introduced following a sharp drop in social media staff (no thanks to Twitter axing more than half of its staff, Meta firing 13% of their staff, and Snapchat cutting 20% of its employees), which resulted in the ability of online platforms to adequately police and moderate becoming a concern [3]. With these new regulations being imposed on Big Tech companies, critics have raised several concerns and challenges that the Bill potentially faces.


One of the primary issues is that failure to comply with certain policing standards may result in executives facing jail sentences [4]. This has resulted in civil liberty campaigners, such as the Open Rights Group, labelling the Bill as a censorship machine, limiting freedom of speech, and hence likening it to Vladimir Putin’s exercise of power in imprisoning Russian media executives [5]. While it is unlikely that such an extreme simile is likely to materialise into a reality in the United Kingdom, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies, Robert Colvile, has raised an agreeable point that consequences as coercive as imprisonment are likely to scare tech companies into playing safe and removing content that has the slightest potential for public debate or discontent [6]. Cognisant of this, the Bill was later amended in Parliament to have the definition of harmful content accessed by adults be voted on by Parliament in order to disincentivise online platforms from over-removing legal material due to the arbitrary interpretation of harm intended by the government and Parliament [7]. Additionally, the government scrapped the controversial clause of forcing online platforms to take down “legal but harmful” content and replaced it with regulations of transparency over content moderation. The British government further asserts that the Bill will safeguard freedom of expression and pluralism as it also recognises the right for adults to access content that others might find upsetting or offensive. Thus, the Bill seems be primarily concerned with the proper mechanisms and systems being present and functional on online platforms, rather than on restricting freedom of expression. Even if it were a mechanism for censorship, it surely cannot be frowned upon as a mechanism to censure and censor inter alia racism and bullying.


Another impending concern that online platforms are bracing for is the rapid scything in user numbers following the imposition of the new legislation. Assuming the effects of the Bill to be peremptory, the number of users on online platforms will be reduced almost immediately and with it, the primary source of the online platforms’ revenue. While the loss in revenue is one of the most blatantly obvious detriments that Big Tech companies are bracing for, they are also likely to find themselves faced with other struggles. While discretion is granted to companies to use their vast resources and ingenuity to develop their own ways of ensuring a tighter policing of verification, it is unclear what the threshold of effectiveness is expected to be. Will an additional verification method be all that is needed to keep them out of the woods or will a metric be used to ensure that the new verification method successfully filters out underage users? Proposals for age estimation technology and the requirement of uploading photo IDs have surfaced amidst this debate. However, these suggestions may not be entirely feasible. Age estimation technology is still emerging and is in the midst of development with low rates of accuracy while the use of IDs in verification may present certain barriers for members of the transgender community, survivors of domestic abuse, and persons under witness protection [8]. The tightening of verification methods in general seems like a potentially fertile ground for serious concerns about data collection and privacy issues, especially if any breach were to occur. This, coupled with the potential impact it is likely to have on people who are not in possession of their ID, presents itself to be a disproportionate measure.


The debates surrounding the Bill portend an unprecedented difficulty that Big Tech companies will have to face once the Bill becomes an official statutory legislation. With the impending reality of the Bill soon materialising into an Act of Parliament, Tech Companies are hopefully already on their toes, ready for what is to come.




References

[1] Gov.UK, “Online Safety Bill: factsheet”, (Gov.UK, 18 January 2023) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-63916809 (Accessed: 18 January 2023)

[2] Gov.UK, “Online Safety Bill: factsheet”, (Gov.UK, 18 January 2023) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-63916809 (Accessed: 18 January 2023)

[3] Cristina Criddle, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe, Ian Johnston “UK Government drops ‘legal but harmful’ clause from new online law” (Financial Times, 28 November 2022) (https://www.ft.com/content/8a97c03f-5b79-4441-9267-84fb56a4d55e (Accessed: 18 January 2023)

[4] Tim Bradshaw, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe, “Details of UK Online Safety Bill to be unveiled in bid to take on Big Tech” (Financial Times, 16 March 2022) https://www.ft.com/content/7a0b5d46-5b19-4bb3-ac1b-5c9cd8589d69 (Accessed: 18 January 2023)

[5] Christ Nuttall “Danger warnings for UK Online Safety Bill” (Financial Times, 17 March 2022) https://www.ft.com/content/912f29f4-9b73-49b8-b6e5-c45fc3af62c9 (Accessed 18 January 2023)

[6] Christ Nuttall “Danger warnings for UK Online Safety Bill” (Financial Times, 17 March 2022) https://www.ft.com/content/912f29f4-9b73-49b8-b6e5-c45fc3af62c9 (Accessed 18 January 2023)

[7] Gov.UK, “Online Safety Bill: factsheet”, (Gov.UK, 18 January 2023) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-63916809 (Accessed: 18 January 2023)

[8] Ian Johnston, Cristina Criddle, “Social Media platforms brace for hit to user numbers from age checks” (Financial Times, 18 January 2023) https://www.ft.com/content/9909d944-2b18-4077-bd91-afff28a5a1e3 (Accessed: 18 January 2023)

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