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Online Safety Bill Update

Volume 695: debated on Wednesday 12 May 2021

Today the Government are publishing the draft Online Safety Bill. This ground-breaking piece of legislation will deliver our manifesto commitment of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, while also, crucially, protecting freedom of expression.

The Government’s overarching approach to digital regulation will promote competition and innovation, keep the UK safe and secure online, and promote a flourishing, democratic society, all while driving growth. The Government will also ensure that their approach to governing digital technologies is streamlined and coherent, within Government itself and across the regulatory landscape. Within this, our Online Safety Bill is a key Government priority, which takes a proportionate approach that promotes innovation.

The need for this legislation is clear: in recent weeks we have seen the sporting community hold a mass boycott of social media to demonstrate the cost of abhorrent online racist abuse, while at the same time we have heard legitimate concerns that social media platforms have arbitrarily removed content or blocked users online. It is crucial that we bring consistency, transparency and fairness into the online sphere.

In line with the full Government response published in December 2020, the draft Bill will place duties of care on companies and will give Ofcom the functions and powers to oversee the regulatory framework. The aims of this legislation are to ensure online platforms keep their promises by:

Protecting children.

Tackling criminal activity.

Upholding freedom of expression.

The strongest provisions in our legislation are for children. All companies in scope of this legislation will need to consider the risks that their sites may pose to the youngest and most vulnerable members of society. This Bill will require companies to take steps to protect children from inappropriate content and harmful activity online, from content such as pro-suicide material. Today I can also confirm that the final legislation, when introduced to Parliament, will contain provisions that will require companies to report child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) content identified on their services. This will ensure companies provide law enforcement with the high-quality information they need to safeguard victims and investigate offenders.

Our legislation also makes clear that all in-scope companies must tackle criminal content and activity on their platforms, and remove and limit the spread of illegal and harmful content such as terrorist material and suicide content.

The largest social media platforms will need to set out what types of content are unacceptable, and will be held to account for the transparent, consistent and effective enforcement of these terms and conditions. We have heard from many parties, including the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which has done excellent work in this area, how damaging online abuse can be. These provisions will help to address the abusive and unpleasant content online which does not reach the threshold of criminality.

Since the publication of the full Government response in December 2020, there has been significant concern about the exclusion of online fraud from the legislation. This Government understand the devastating effect that online fraud can have on its victims, so today we are announcing that the Online Safety Bill brings user-generated fraud into the scope of the regulatory framework.

This change will aim to reduce some specific types of damaging fraudulent activity. In tandem, the Home Office will be working with other Departments, law enforcement and the private sector to develop the Fraud Action Plan, including the potential for further legislation if necessary.

This legislation tackles a number of online harms, but it does so while also protecting core democratic rights—particularly freedom of expression.

While the internet has revolutionised our ability to connect with one another—enabling us to exchange views with people all over the world—the majority of online speech is now facilitated by a small number of private companies who wield significant influence over what appears online. We must make sure they cannot use that influence to suppress free debate, arbitrarily remove content or stifle media freedoms.

Therefore this legislation will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content. Rather, the major platforms will need to be clear what content is acceptable on their services and enforce their terms and conditions consistently and effectively. Companies will not be able to arbitrarily remove controversial viewpoints, and users will be able to seek redress if they feel content has been removed unfairly.

This legislation also includes new protections for journalistic content and content of democratic importance. We have been clear that news publishers’ own content on their own sites will not be in scope, and nor will user comments on this content. In addition, news publisher content that is shared on other services will not be in scope, and this draft bill also now includes robust protections to ensure wider journalistic content is not adversely affected. The largest platforms will also have a statutory duty to safeguard users’ access to journalistic content shared on their platforms.

When it comes to content of democratic importance, the legislation will also include protections to safeguard pluralism and ensure internet users can continue to engage in robust debate online.

We will require the largest platforms to put in place clear policies to protect content of democratic importance, and to enforce this consistently across all content moderation. This will include, for example, content promoting or opposing government policy or a political party ahead of a vote in Parliament, election or referendum, or campaigning on a live political issue.

The threat posed by harmful and illegal content and activity is a global one and the Government remain committed to building international consensus around shared approaches to improve internet safety. Under the UK’s presidency of the G7, the world’s leading democracies committed to a set of internet safety principles in line with the main themes in the UK Government’s Online Harms White Paper. This is significant as it is the first time that an approach to internet safety has been agreed in the G7. We will continue to collaborate with our international partners to develop common approaches to this shared challenge.

This Bill is the culmination of years of work and is truly novel. It is vital that we get it right both in order to create a framework that delivers for users and that maintains the UK’s reputation as a tech leader. This balance has been struck. During the pre-legislative scrutiny process, which I hope will start as soon as possible, my Department and the Home Office will continue work across both Houses to develop some areas of the legislation. This will include measures on user advocacy, and exempting educational institutions that are already regulated from scope. As we move forward, I would like to thank colleagues for their valuable contributions and continued engagement as we prepare this world-leading legislation.