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The Online Safety Bill - will it make the UK the safest place to be online?

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The Online Safety Bill - will it make the UK the safest place to be online?

Technology and information law expert Laurie Heizler examines the scope and content of imminent laws promoting online safety

For all the time of its existence the internet has been largely unregulated. Varieties of harmful content and cyberbullying have flourished to the detriment of individual mental health and the reputation of several social media platforms.

The government’s Online Safety Bill (OSB) is an attempt to call time on the internet’s “Wild West” and make the internet a safer place. It will become law later this year. Some people will believe the possible restriction of free expression online is a price worth paying in order to protect people from race and gender hatred, child abuse, incitement to violence, financial crime and terrorist propaganda.

What are the aims of the OSB?

The OSB is intended to:

  • prevent the spread of illegal content such as abusive words, images and terrorist content
  • protect children from unlawful material that is abusive or exploitative
  • protect adults from content that, though legal, is unacceptable or capable of harm.

There is a feeling that internet service providers do not do enough to ensure our safety, so the public is likely to welcome fines for breaches of legislation that can be as high as the greater of £18 million or 10% of the platform provider’s annual world turnover.

Who is affected by the OSB?

The legislation will impact “regulated services” with links to the UK. These are defined as “search services” (any service that is or includes a search engine) and “user-to-user services” (covering social media platforms, websites, apps, online market places, blogs, forums and gaming sites).

The OSB outlaws any illegal and harmful user-generated content that may be “encountered” by other users when it is read, seen or heard on the platform provider’s site. The government has recently added to the OSB further “priority” offences such as incitement to violence, threats of violence, hate and financial crime. Children will be prevented from accessing any pornographic content.

Will the OSB apply to me?

If you are providing an internet service that allows users to experience content uploaded by other users, or if your own service interacts with users, then ‘Yes’.

You should now review the wide definition of “user-to-user service”. You must also take your own steps to ensure compliance with the legislation so that you know what you have to do in order to discharge the statutory duty of care.

If you operate any regulated service you must provide a risk assessment before UK users are able to access the service, or, if they can do so already, “as soon as practicable after the service becomes a regulated service”. There are more specific risk assessment duties in relation to content relating respectively to children and adults. For potentially illegal content, providers are under a duty to operate the service using “proportionate systems and processes” designed to minimise the presence and degree of exposure of “priority” illegal content.

Relevant providers of internet services should take careful note of the provisions of the OSB and take steps now to ensure that they comply with the legislation that will emerge from it.

If you have any legal questions relating to the internet and social media communications or any regulatory matters, Dutton Gregory can help you. For further information, please contact Laurie Heizler (l.heizler@duttongregory.co.uk) on 01962 624423.