The Government has added detail to the online protections measures it aims to deliver during the next Parliamentary year.

On Tuesday the Queen outlined the measures the government will introduce going forward as the UK emerges from over a year of lockdowns caused by the global Coronavirus pandemic.

During the Queen’s speech on Tuesday, the government listed its priorities, including the creation of an advanced British research agency, a focus on online safety, as well as a focus on education and training for older teenagers and adults to “revolutionise” British skills.

Online Safety Bill

And on Wednesday the government has finally fleshed out what it proposes in the online safety space, when it published its ‘Online Safety Bill’.

The proposed Bill seeks to “protect young people and clamp down on racist abuse online, while safeguarding freedom of expression.”

“The draft Bill marks a milestone in the Government’s fight to make the internet safe,” the government stated. “Despite the fact that we are now using the internet more than ever, over three quarters of UK adults are concerned about going online, and fewer parents feel the benefits outweigh the risks of their children being online – falling from 65 per cent in 2015 to 50 per cent in 2019.”

The Bill will change a number of rules going forward, and seeks to “put an end to harmful practices, while ushering in a new era of accountability and protections for democratic debate.”

New measures include additions to “strengthen people’s rights to express themselves freely online, while protecting journalism and democratic political debate in the UK.”

The Bill also looks to tackle prolific online scams such as romance fraud.

Social clampdown

But one of the most noteworthy measures will be compelling mostly American social networking giants to remove and limit the spread of illegal and harmful content.

This includes child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.

And the Bill looks to have some teeth to punish social networking sites, as Ofcom will be given the power to fine companies failing in a new duty of care up to £18 million or ten percent of annual global turnover, whichever is higher.

Ofcom will also be given the power to block access to sites if they fail to adhere to these new rules.

And the government warned it may also introduce a new criminal offence for senior managers at social media if tech firms don’t step up their efforts to improve safety.

“Today the UK shows global leadership with our groundbreaking laws to usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world,” said Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden.

“We will protect children on the internet, crack down on racist abuse on social media and through new measures to safeguard our liberties, create a truly democratic digital age,” said Dowden.

“This new legislation will force tech companies to report online child abuse on their platforms, giving our law enforcement agencies the evidence they need to bring these offenders to justice,” added Home Secretary Priti Patel.

“Ruthless criminals who defraud millions of people and sick individuals who exploit the most vulnerable in our society cannot be allowed to operate unimpeded, and we are unapologetic in going after them,” said Patel.

“It’s time for tech companies to be held to account and to protect the British people from harm. If they fail to do so, they will face penalties,” she warned.

The draft Bill will be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs before a final version is formally introduced to Parliament.

Not unexpected

The arrival of this proposed ‘Online Safety Bill’ should come as no surprise, as the government has began drafting the bill as far back as April 2019.

The Government then warned in December 2020 that it would implement tougher restrictions on social media firms.

It said at the time that its Online Safety Bill would place more pressure on social media firms to remove illegal content, while including protections on free speech.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2019 had already called for standardised international rules that would put all internet firms on a level playing field.

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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