UK Online Safety Bill Set To Become Law

Evil parliament (c) pisaphotography, Shutterstock 2014

Government ignores tech objections, as Online Safety Bill looks set to become UK law after passing both houses of parliament

The UK Government’s controversial Online Safety Bill looks set to become law after the legislation passed the House of Commons and the House of Lords today.

The Online Safety Bill has taken many years to hammer out, and seeks to force the removal of “harmful” online content from social media platforms, in order to protect children.

However the tech industry has persistently warned the UK government about some of the bill’s most intrusive aspects, which the government has essentially ignored.

It remains to be seen how the law will be implemented, what legal challenges there will be going forward, and if tech giants will begin carrying out their threats and start withdrawing their services from the United Kingdom.


Online Safety Bill

The online safety bill is one of the toughest attempts by any government to make Big Tech companies responsible for content shared on their platforms.

The main focus of the bill is that social media platforms will need to show they are committed to removing illegal content such as child sexual abuse, extreme sexual violence, promotion of self-harm, animal cruelty, terrorism etc.

Other parts of the bill require pornography websites to stop children viewing content by checking the ages of users. But actually enforcing age verification – and the huge privacy implications it would entail, remains an extremely challenging issue.

Issues such as cyber-flashing and the sharing of ‘deepfake’ pornography are also banned.

But the bill also allows Ofcom to require a tech platform to apply content moderation policies that would be impossible to comply with, without removing end-to-end encryption.

The government seemed to suggest earlier this month it was backing scanning encrypted messages for harmful content, when it said this was only until it is “technically feasible” to do so.

However the government later said this was not the case and nothing has changed.

Breaking encryption?

If the company refuses to allow this, the firm could face fines of up to 4 percent of its parent company revenue – unless it pulled out of the UK market entirely.

And this has prompted some stark warnings from the tech industry, as the final legislation still contains a threat to introduce the scanning of private messages in the future.

In March WhatsApp and fellow messaging firm Signal said they would rather pull out of the UK than comply with the bill’s requirements.

A month later in April WhatsApp and six other providers of end-to-end encrypted messaging services urged the UK government to “urgently rethink” the Online Safety Bill.

They said it presented an “unprecedented threat to the privacy, safety and security” of UK citizens and those they communicate with around the world.

In June Apple called for the Online Safety Bill to be amended in order to protect encryption.

Government not listening

But the government does not seem to be listening to concerns from the tech industry and digital campaign groups – a fact noted by Paul Holland CEO at Beyond Encryption.

“Despite the Online Safety Bill passing the House of Lords, more questions than answers have been raised,” said Holland. “There is still a large amount of uncertainty as to how it will be implemented and what impact it will have on the digital world.”

“The need for better regulation of online spaces is undeniable,” said Holland. “However, whether this piece of legislation provides the Government and regulators with the tools they need to combat harmful content is doubtful, and there are serious concerns to be addressed around freedom of speech and online privacy.”

“How the regulators will enforce age verification checks and the scanning of encrypted messages has yet to be shown in a way that is viable or would not have dramatic and damaging unintended consequences,” said Holland.

“There’s been significant pushback from the tech industry and digital rights campaigners on these issues, which have simply not been listened to,” Holland concluded. “The Government has taken a top-down approach to implementing this regulation, and the result is that it will not deliver the change that is required to make online spaces safer.”