The House of Lords is currently debating at Committee Stage the Online Safety Bill, a landmark piece of legislation which introduces a new set of internet laws to protect children and adults from online harms.
The Bill will establish a regulatory framework for certain online services. These include user-to-user services, such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and search services, such as Google.
The UK government’s stated aim in introducing the Bill is “to make Britain the best place in the world to set up and run a digital business, while simultaneously ensuring that Britain is the safest place in the world to be online”.
The BIll will place duties of care on both regulated user-to-user service providers and regulated search service providers. The regulated service providers would have duties relating to, among other things: (a) illegal content; (b) protecting children; (c) user empowerment; (d) content of democratic importance, news publisher content and journalistic content; (e) freedom of expression and privacy; and (f) fraudulent advertising.
The Bill also does two other distinct but interconnected things. It introduces age-verification requirements in relation to pornography providers (which are not user-to-user); as well as new criminal offences, e.g., encouraging self-harm and epilepsy trolling.
This makes it a long, wide-ranging and complex Bill.
Moreover, the Bill will place more responsibility on technology giants to keep their users safe. It will give Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, the power to levy fines against non-compliant providers, and would make senior managers liable to imprisonment for not complying with a direction to provide Ofcom with information.
But what impact is the BIll expected to have? What concerns are there about the implementation of this new regime?
Prof. Lorna Woods (Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex), who devised the systems-based approach to online regulation that has been adopted by the Government and whose work is widely regarded as laying the groundwork for the UK’s Online Safety Bill, was recently interviewed on this new regulatory approach.
On 11 May 2023, Prof. Woods stepped inside BBC Radio 4’s Briefing Room to be interviewed by David Aaronovitch. She talked about what is actually in the Bill, how the new internet laws are intended to work and what potential weaknesses still remain. The programme can be accessed here.
Prof. Woods also joined Conan D’Arcy of the Global Counsel tech policy team to talk about the UK tech regulation, discuss recent criticisms of the Online Safety Bill, as well as the regulation of generative AI tools like ChatGPT. You can listen to the podcast here (published on 17 May 2023).