An online safety law is coming to the UK, but it’s not enough

For the past For ten years, the biggest companies in the tech industry have effectively been allowed to check their own homework. They have protected their power through extensive lobbying while hiding behind the tech industry’s infamous adage: “Move fast and break things.”

Food and beverage manufacturers, the automotive industry and financial services companies are all subject to regulation and accountability measures to ensure high levels of ethics, fairness and transparency. On the other hand, technology companies have often argued that any legislation limits their ability to act effectively, make a profit and do what they have been empowered to do. Currently, there is a slew of bills and legislation around the world that ultimately aim to curtail these powers, such as the highly anticipated Online Safety Bill in the UK. That bill will pass in 2023, but its restrictions will make it ineffective.

The online safety law has been in the making for several years and effectively places the duty of care for monitoring illegal content on the platforms themselves. It could also potentially impose an obligation on platforms to restrict content that is technically legal but could be considered harmful, setting a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression and the protection of marginalized groups.

In 2020 and 2021, YouGov and BT (along with the charity I run, Glitch) found that 1.8 million people surveyed said they had engaged in threatening behavior online in the past year. Twenty-three percent of those surveyed were members of the LGBTQIA community, and 25 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced racist abuse online.

Legislation will come into force in the UK in 2023 to address some of this damage, but it will not go far enough. Campaigners, think tanks and experts in the field have raised numerous concerns about the effectiveness of the current online safety law. The think tank Demos emphasizes that the bill does not specifically mention minority groups, such as women and the LGBTQIA community, even though these communities are often disproportionately affected by online abuse.

The Carnegie UK Trust noted that while the term “significant harm” is used in the bill, there are no specific processes to define what this is or how platforms should measure it. Academics and other groups have raised the alarm over the bill’s proposal to remove the previous Section 11 requirement that Ofcom “restrict the development and use of technologies and systems for regulating access to [electronic] material.” Other groups have raised concerns about removing clauses around education and future-proofing, making this legislation reactive and ineffective as it fails to account for the harm that could be caused by platforms that have not yet gained prominence.

Platforms need to change and other countries have passed legislation to make this happen. We have already seen Germany introduce NetzDG in 2017, the first country in Europe to take a stand against hate speech on social networks – platforms with more than 2 million users have seven days to remove illegal content or face a maximum fine up to 50 million euros. In 2021, EU lawmakers created a set of rules for big tech giants through the Digital Markets Act, which bars platforms from giving their own products preferential treatment, and in 2022 we’ve seen progress with the EU AI law, which saw extensive consultation with civil society organizations to adequately address concerns around marginalized groups and technology, a working arrangement requested by campaigners in the UK. In Nigeria, the federal government has issued a new Internet Code of Conduct in an effort to tackle misinformation and cyberbullying, with specific clauses to protect children from harmful content.

In 2023, the UK will pass legislation to address similar harms, finally moving forward with a regulatory body for tech companies. Unfortunately, the Online Safety Bill will not contain the adequate measures to actually protect vulnerable people online, and more will need to be done.

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