Recent data from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) revealed that almost half of children and teenagers have viewed harmful content online. We’re raising the most tech-savvy generation we’ve ever known, but that could be dangerous without proper regulations. Here we consider what impact delaying the Online Safety Bill could have, and what we can do to keep young people safe.
The first draft of the Online Safety Bill was introduced by former Prime Minister Theresa May back in 2019 and has undergone many rounds of revisions and amendments in the subsequent three years. It aims to prevent the spread of illegal content, and protect children and adults from any harmful material, illegal or otherwise.
The legislation would put the responsibility for meeting these aims in the hands of tech giants like Meta and Google. It would also give communications regulator Ofcom the power to apply more pressure on these companies — firms that fail to comply with new rules would face fines of up to £18 million, or ten per cent of their annual global turnover.
After a long three years of debates and revisions, action was finally on the horizon as the bill reached its final stages. It was due to be voted on by the UK’s House of Commons this summer, after which it would have had to pass another vote from the House of Lords, but was expected to pass relatively easily into law.
That was, until Boris Johnson handed in his resignation as Prime Minister. Now, timetable pressures mean the bill is being rescheduled until MPs return from their summer break and a new prime minister is selected. This means that much needed internet safety regulations are being severely delayed, if they are implemented at all — there’s always a risk the new party leader could block the bill entirely.
A flawed solution?
Despite the evident need for better online safety regulations, the bill has plenty of critics. Many believe that “legal but harmful” content is just too broad. As firms attempt to avoid fines and even jail time, there are concerns that they could censor users at the expense of free speech.
Other parts of the bill would be particularly hard to enforce. For example, messaging platform WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, meaning only the devices that send and receive the message can see it. If law enforcement opens a chink in this armour to scan messages for harmful content, it would open the door for those with malicious intentions to do the same.
The time to act is now
While the UK waits to see when, and if, the Online Safety Bill passes, 97 per cent of children will be accessing the internet. Many of these will be exposed to harmful content — an estimated one in three children are exposed to sexual content online. Parents and guardians cannot afford to wait for slow changes in legislation, they must act now to protect young people from potential dangers.
The decision to delay the Online Safety Bill has put thousands of children, and adults, at risk of being exposed to harmful content. While further revisions may be necessary to create the optimum version of the legislation, there is no time to wait when it comes to online safety. Parents and guardians must take matters into their own hands to ensure the safety of their children while they wait for the government to finally act.