Long-awaited Online Safety Bill finally passed by Parliament
The long-awaited Online Safety Bill that will set tougher standards for social media platforms to protect children passed its final Parliamentary debate on Tuesday (September 19) and is now ready to become law.
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan described it 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.
The Bill has undergone considerable parliamentary scrutiny in both Houses and has come out with “stronger protections for all”, the Government said.
This includes a major emphasis on child protection and the removal of illegal content.
Once the Bill receives Royal Assent and becomes law, social media platforms will be expected to remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place, including content promoting self-harm.
They will also be expected to prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content by enforcing age limits and age-checking measures.
If social media platforms do not comply with these rules, Ofcom could fine them up to £18 million or ten per cent of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest – meaning fines handed down to the biggest platforms could reach billions of pounds.
UK Minister for Security Tom Tugendhat said they have written to Meta’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg personally to urge him to ensure child safety is upheld while rolling out end-to-end encryption on Instagram Direct and Facebook Messenger, and not to enable criminals to go undetected and further exploit vulnerable children.
The Government says this “major milestone” in the Online safety Bill means it is within touching distance of delivering the “most powerful child protection laws in a generation”, while ensuring adults are better empowered to take control of their online lives, while protecting their mental health.
Ms Donelan said: “I am immensely proud of what we have achieved with this Bill. Our common-sense approach will deliver a better future for British people, by making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online.
“It puts protecting children first, enabling us to catch keyboard criminals and crack down on the heinous crimes they seek to commit.
“I am deeply thankful to the tireless campaigning and efforts of parliamentarians, survivors of abuse and charities who have all worked relentlessly to get this Bill to the finish line.”
She said without this “groundbreaking legislation”, the safety of children across the country would be at stake and the internet would remain a “wild west of content”, putting children’s lives and mental health at risk.
The Bill has a zero-tolerance approach to protecting children, meaning social media platforms will be legally responsible for the content they host and keeping children and young people safe online.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) says the legislation has been “in the works” for four years and in that time, it has seen the threats facing children online escalate.
It latest figures show that in the first six months of this year, reports of confirmed child sexual abuse involving ‘sextortion’ surged by more than 250 per cent compared with the whole of 2022.
“The Government wants to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online and, at its core, this legislation is a real opportunity to protect children from the myriad harms the internet exposes them to,” the IWF said.
NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said: “We are absolutely delighted to see the Online Safety Bill being passed through Parliament. It is a momentous day for children and will finally result in the ground-breaking protections they should expect online.
“At the NSPCC, we hear from children about the completely unacceptable levels of abuse and harm they face online every day. That’s why we have campaigned strongly for change alongside brave survivors, families, young people and parliamentarians to ensure the legislation results in a much safer online world for children.
“Children can benefit greatly from life online. Tech companies can now seize the opportunity to embrace safety by design.
“The NSPCC is ready to help them listen to and understand the online experiences of their young users to help ensure every child feels safe and empowered online.”
Donna Jones, chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, says it is important that social media platforms now “step up to implement safeguards at every opportunity”.
She said technology companies must now prioritise the safety of children over the privacy of their users.
Ms Jones, the police and crime commissioner for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, said concerns have been raised by technology experts and leading child abuse charities that end-to-end encryption on private messages could be used to conceal child abuse online.
“Leaders are calling for social media platforms to provide assurance that they will keep their platforms safe from abusers,” she said.
Ms Jones said the new Online Safety Bill “brings greater protection for children, putting the onus on social media companies to check the minimum age of users and to ensure that targeted content is age appropriate”.
“Breaches of the new laws will see social media companies paying large fines,” she added. “I’m pleased to have worked with the Government on the creation of this new law but acknowledge that this is just the start.
“Parents need to ensure they know what their children are doing online. There is more threat from harm for a child sitting in their bedroom with a phone than walking down the road alone.
“The National Crime Agency has mapped there are over 700,000 individuals accessing and viewing indecent images of children online. That’s one in 86 people in this country. This is a huge risk and one which police forces across the country are working hard to combat.
“The safety of our children online must come above any privacy concerns for users and we must see social media platforms stepping up to implement safeguards at every opportunity.”
In addition to its firm protections for children, the Bill empowers adults to take control of what they see online.
Also added to the Bill are new laws to tackle online fraud and violence against women and girls. Through this legislation, it will be easier to convict someone who shares intimate images without consent and new laws will further criminalise the non-consensual sharing of intimate deepfakes.
The change in laws will make it easier to charge abusers who share intimate images and put more offenders behind bars and better protect the public, says the Government. Those found guilty of this base offence have a maximum penalty of six months in prison.
Former Love Island star and campaigner Georgia Harrison said: “Violence against women and girls is so common, with one in three women in the UK having experienced online abuse or harassment.
“The Online Safety Bill is going to help bring this to an end, by holding social media companies accountable to protect women and girls from online abuse.”
Under the Bill, the biggest social media platforms will also have to stop users being exposed to dangerous fraudulent adverts by blocking and removing scams, or face Ofcom’s huge new fines.
The Government has recently strengthened the Bill even further, by amending the law to force social media firms to prevent activity that facilitates animal cruelty and torture (such as paying or instructing torture). Even if this activity takes place outside the UK but is seen by users here, companies will be forced to take it down.
Anticipating the Bill coming into force, the Government says the biggest social media companies have already started to take action. Snapchat has started removing the accounts of underage users and TikTok has implemented stronger age verification.
Ofcom chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes, said: “Today is a major milestone in the mission to create a safer life online for children and adults in the UK. Everyone at Ofcom feels privileged to be entrusted with this important role, and we’re ready to start implementing these new laws.
“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 illegal online harms, including child sexual exploitation, fraud and terrorism.
While the bill has been in progress, the Government has been working closely with Ofcom to ensure changes will be implemented as quickly as possible when it becomes law.
The regulator will immediately begin work on tackling illegal content and protecting children’s safety, with its consultation process launching in the weeks after Royal Assent.