By Francesco Rotatore – Team Leader in the Street Law Project
In May 2021, the United Kingdom proposed the Online Safety Bill. Recent events demonstrate this to be very controversial legislation. This proposed Bill claims to make Britain one of the safest places in the world. However, it is accused of being impractical whilst holding undemocratic values.
The Online Safety Bill is a proposed legislation that aims to hold social media companies and other online platforms accountable for the safety of their users. The Bill establishes a new regulatory framework for online content and services. This includes the creation of a new independent regulator that enforces the rules and holds companies liable when breached. This protects individuals by requiring platforms to remove all content that is illegal, ban content as per their terms and conditions, whilst allowing adult users to customise the content they view on their feeds. Additionally, children are automatically prevented from viewing this potentially harmful content.
This Bill could impose penalties on companies that fail to comply with the regulations and would give the regulator the authoritative power to act against individual users who engage in harmful online behaviour. Thus, social media platforms would answer to the regulator and endure fines of up to ten percent of their revenues or be banned in severe instances if failure to protect the people is of concern.
These penalties could pose a significant risk, especially for small start-up companies who have limited resources to adhere to the strict set of regulations being proposed. This thus causes greater liability for these companies which in turn discourages them from entering such spaces altogether.
If this bill comes into effect, it could pose several challenges surrounding fairness in corporate governance alongside democratic rights. Also, the Online Safety Bill imposes a duty for social media platforms that are accessible to children to have a further duty to protect them from harmful content such as eating disorders or self-harm. The definition of “harmful content” is defined ambiguously leaving room for interpretation which may pose a risk to legitimate speech.
Social media platforms may take cautious approaches to moderate user-generated content, which could remove content protected by freedom of speech laws. How the government strikes a balance between content that could be interpreted versus content that poses a safety risk to society can be viewed as extremely subjective. Arguably, freedom of speech is already undermined in its current state. Women are subject to harassment, minorities are subject to racism, and individuals are subject to scrutiny which has unforeseen effects on public discourse. While intervention by the government may resolve this issue on a minor scale, it may present further limitations for freedom of speech, as well as suppress the legitimate needs of those individuals’ experiencing discrimination or exploitation. This reinstates previous social concerns that presented potential relief to certain social movements when unlimited access to social media is available.
The goal of this proposed Online Safety Bill in the United Kingdom is to hold social media companies and online platforms responsible for the safety of their users. Therefore, it aims to create a new regulatory framework and an independent regulator to enforce rules and impose penalties on companies who fail to comply. While the government’s objective is to protect individuals from harmful online content, the proposed penalties could pose unjust liability on social media platforms. Additionally, the Bill inflicts several challenges to freedom of speech alongside democratic rights as the Government could retain more control over the content being viewed on social media platforms. In essence, it is crucial for the government to strike a balance between protecting social media users from legitimate safety risks while preserving freedom of speech and democratic rights for all citizens.
 Policy Paper, ‘Online Safety Bill: factsheet’ (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) < https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/online-safety-bill-supporting-documents/online-safety-bill-factsheet#:~:text=The%20Online%20Safety%20Bill%20delivers,outcome%20of%20extensive%20Parliamentary%20scrutiny> 18 January 2023  Guidance, ‘A guide to the Online Safety Bill’ (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) < https://www.gov.uk/guidance/a-guide-to-the-online-safety-bill> 16 December 2022  Policy Paper, ‘Online Safety Bill: factsheet’ (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) < https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/online-safety-bill-supporting-documents/online-safety-bill-factsheet#:~:text=The%20Online%20Safety%20Bill%20delivers,outcome%20of%20extensive%20Parliamentary%20scrutiny> 18 January 2023  Public Bill Committee, ‘Online Safety Bill’ (House of Commons Official Report General Committees) <https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-03/0004/PBC004_OnlineSafety_1st17th_Compilation_29_06_2022.pdf> 24 May 2022