The UK Government’s controversial Online Safety Act has, as expected, now become law on Thursday after the legislation received Royal Assent.

The announcement by the government is a bitter blow to privacy campaigners and big name tech firms, who have consistently opposed the legislation.

In March WhatsApp and Signal said they would rather pull out of the UK than comply with the act’s requirements. All eyes will be on the reaction from the likes of Apple, Meta and other campaigners.

Snoopers Charter 2

“The Online Safety Act has today (Thursday 26 October) received Royal Assent, heralding a new era of internet safety and choice by placing world-first legal duties on social media platforms,” the government said.

The government says new laws take a zero-tolerance approach to protecting children from online harm, while empowering adults with more choices over what they see online.

It follows years of scrutiny and extensive debate within both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The Act places legal responsibility on tech companies to prevent and rapidly remove illegal content, like terrorism and revenge pornography. They will also have to stop children seeing material that is harmful to them such as bullying, content promoting self-harm and eating disorders, and pornography.

Social media platforms for example will be legally required to verify that users are old enough, typically 13, and porn websites will have to make sure users are 18.

The law applies to any social media platform, no matter where it is based as long as a UK user can access its services.

Companies that don’t comply with the rules face fines of up to 18 million pounds ($22 million) or 10 percent of annual global sales, whichever is greater.

Indeed, the bosses of these firms could even face prison sentences.

Ofcom will enforce the law.

Protecting children?

“Today will go down as an historic moment that ensures the online safety of British society not only now, but for decades to come,” said technology Secretary Michelle Donelan.

“I am immensely proud of the work that has gone into the Online Safety Act from its very inception to it becoming law today,” said Donelan. “The Bill protects free speech, empowers adults and will ensure that platforms remove illegal content.”

“At the heart of this Bill, however, is the protection of children,” said Donelan. “I would like to thank the campaigners, parliamentarians, survivors of abuse and charities that have worked tirelessly, not only to get this Act over the finishing line, but to ensure that it will make the UK the safest place to be online in the world.”

The Act means that social media firms now have to:

  • remove illegal content quickly or prevent it from appearing in the first place, including content promoting self-harm;
  • prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content including pornographic content, content that promotes, encourages or provides instructions for suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, content depicting or encouraging serious violence or bullying content
  • enforce age limits and use age-checking measures on platforms where content harmful to children is published;
  • ensure social media platforms are more transparent about the risks and dangers posed to children on their sites, including by publishing risk assessments;
  • provide parents and children with clear and accessible ways to report problems online when they do arise.

Despite the rhetoric from the government, it now remains to be seen what the reaction will be from the tech sector and privacy campaigners.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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