The Online Safety Bill has cleared its final parliamentary hurdle in the House of Lords, meaning it will finally become law after years of delay.
This landmark bill will force social media companies to remove illegal content and protect users, especially children, from legal but harmful content.
The idea was conceived in a white paper in 2019, but the road to turning it into law has been long and rocky – with delays and controversies over issues such as free speech and privacy .
Perhaps most controversial is that one of the proposals would require platforms like WhatsApp and Signal to undermine message encryption so that private chats can be checked for criminal content.
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “The Online Safety Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation. Today this Government takes a huge step forward in our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. »
The bill will require social media companies to promptly remove illegal content or prevent its appearance, including content that incites self-harm.
Other illegal content it wants to crack down on is the sale of drugs and weapons, inciting or planning terrorism, sexual exploitation, hate speech, scams and revenge porn.
Communications regulator Ofcom will be largely responsible for enforcing the bill, with social media bosses facing fines worth billions of pounds. or even prison if they do not comply.
The bill also created new criminal offenses, including cyber flash and sharing “deepfake” pornography.
The legislation has received widespread support from charities such as the NSPCC, safety group Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), bereaved parents who say harmful online content contributed to their child’s death and survivors of sexual abuse.
However, there was concerns within the conservative party that it simply goes too far, potentially to the point of threatening free speech online.
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At the same time, tech companies have criticized proposed rules to regulate legal but harmful content, suggesting it would make them unfairly liable for content on their platforms.
Ms Donelan removed this measure from the bill in an amendment last year, which said that instead of platforms by removing legal but harmful content, they will have to provide adults with tools to hide certain content they do not want to see.
This includes content that does not meet the criminal threshold but could be harmful, such as the glorification of eating disorders, misogyny, and certain other forms of abuse.
However, after parents’ reaction, she stressed that the bill still burdens companies with protecting children not only from illegal contentbut any content that may “cause serious trauma”, such as cyberbullying, by imposing age restrictions and age control measures.
Sir Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, said: “We are absolutely delighted to see the Online Safety Bill passed by Parliament. This is a momentous day for children and will finally lead to the groundbreaking protections they can expect online. »