In September 2023, the Online Safety Bill reached the final Parliamentary debate and is now ready to become law — four years after the first draft was introduced. It’s believed that when the Bill comes into effect, it will make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”. So why has it taken four years?
Backing the bill
Simply put, the Online Safety Bill is designed to make the internet safer to use for children and adults and will be regulated by Ofcom. It will hold social media platforms more accountable for the content they host, forcing them to remove harmful, illegal content. If they do not adhere, they risk facing penalties of up to £18 million, or ten per cent of global turnover, whichever figure is greatest.
The Bill has five objectives — to increase user safety online, to preserve and enhance freedom of speech online, to improve law enforcement’s ability to tackle illegal content online, to improve users’ ability to keep themselves safe online, and finally, to improve society’s understanding of the harm landscape.
More specifically, the Bill will enforce companies to put measures in place, such as technology, to verify ages and prevent underage users from accessing restricted content. It will also aim to tackle repeat offenders online by requiring social media companies to assess how to prevent people from creating anonymous and fake profiles, as well as giving adults using the largest platforms more control over what they see on social media.
Given the impact the Online Safety Bill is set to have on the way the internet is used, it’s surprising that a Bill of this prominence and promise has taken so long to make progress. But why?
Passing bills through the House of Commons is by no means a quick process. They must be reviewed at multiple stages and go through rounds of debate and scrutiny before finally receiving Royal Assent, granting them an act of law. The time it takes for a bill to be passed varies case by case, and as a result undergo different procedures.
It was thought the Bill would be passed in the summer of 2022. However, after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a confidence vote in his government, and subsequently resigned in July 2022, the Bill has been sent back and forth and substantially delayed as a result.
The delay in passing the Online Safety Bill has faced backlash as it has enabled more and more children to be exposed to damaging content, affecting their mental and physical health.
Upon analysing the Home Office crime data, the NSPCC revealed that its research found there is likely to be “more than 3,500 online sex crimes taking place against children every month the Online Safety Bill continues to be delayed.” More than a year on from this research, it highlights the stark impact that delaying the Online Safety Bill from passing has on young members of society.
While September 2023 saw significant progress, until the Bill is finalised, parents, guardians, authorities and charities must continue to do all they can in protecting people from being exposed to harmful content online.
The Online Safety Bill promises to transform the way the internet is used, making it a safer space for both children and adults. By holding social media platforms accountable with large penalties, it aims to prevent extremely harmful, illegal content from being easily accessed. However, there’s no denying the impact a four-year wait has had in the meantime. As we anticipate the final stage being passed to make it official, parents must take their own initiative and use accessible resources to keep children safe.