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A new era for online safety

  • By Seamus McGranaghan, Director at O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors

    The UK is now officially the safest place in the world to be online following news that the Online Safety Act has received Royal Assent. The new law, which has been widely debated and is both complex and controversial, places legal duties on social media platforms and in so doing aims to cover a corner of the internet that has been notoriously difficult to monitor.

    With the online world continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, the new legislation has been welcomed by a broad section of society as something of a shield to help regulate and police digital traffic. Included within the new laws is a zero-tolerance approach to protecting children from online harm, while empowering adults with more choices over what they see when browsing the internet and social platforms, in particular. Welcoming the law, The Equality and Human Rights Commission called it ‘a vital first step in addressing harmful content and behaviour online.’

    Putting rules to make the UK the world’s safest place to be online into law is the product of years of intense and robust scrutiny in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The act will protect children by placing legal responsibility on tech companies to stop children seeing content that may be harmful to them such as bullying, content promoting self-harm and eating disorders. Not necessarily illegal activity, but things that have been deemed unsafe. Sites that continue to allow this type of content are responsible for monitoring users’ age to guarantee children will not reach this category of content. The second type of content that this act will prohibit from children’s accounts is any posts that encourage children or young people to partake in dangerous pranks or stunts, the prevention of this will rely on the tech companies undertaking key risk assessments which will be monitored by Ofcom.

    Ofcom will also oversee that tech companies enact the rest of the Bill including the prevention and removal of any illegal content; this covers content including terrorist posts, revenge pornography and threats to kill. The secretary of state will draw up a list of ‘category one’ platforms who are thought to have the largest influence over public opinion, who will have to protect adults from harmful content which includes asking users to select what content they would like to view and which content to prohibit from their account. Many sites already hide content that may be viewed as sensitive and send a request to be approved by the user before viewing, but it will now be monitored.

    While Ofcom has been given extra enforcement powers and will immediately begin work on tackling illegal content and protecting children’s safety, implications for companies’ privacy have been raised by critics. Chat platform WhatsApp has threatened to withdraw from the UK over the act while others suggest that the new act does not go far enough to address the gravity of the challenges promulgated by social media. Many people have raised issue with the fact the Bill is a threat to end-to-end encryption messaging as it could mean these private messages have to be screened and go beyond the sender and the receiver, where they are intended to stay.

    The Technology Secretary has stated that ‘the Bill protects free speech’, but the general reaction to the legislation has not agreed on that. There is a risk that people will report content which involves a differing opinion to their own and deem it as offensive, to which the platform must respond in order to make the user feel protected.

    It has also been suggested that the Act is unclear in terms of illegal content; for example a site may contain illegal activity but may not necessarily be in breach of the legislation and therefore be allowed. This also applies in the reverse to sites that may not contain any illegal content but may be in breech of the legislation and be punished.

    If Ofcom find a site is in breech of any of the new legislation, they can fine them up to £18million or 10% of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest. They are also able to block apps or websites and to give a prison sentence of up to two years for tech executives if they continually ignore Ofcom’s notices to enforce their duty of care to protect children. Senior employees also risk jail time if they delay an Ofcom investigation or request for information.

    To conclude, it is hoped that this new law will help protect children from the dangers of social media, namely, cyberbullying, abuse, trafficking, exploitation and in some cases online radicalisation. It may take a period of time and adjustment for the legislation to make sense and for sites to fully understand the implications of the Bill, while Ofcom also has a period of training to ensure they are understanding of their new enforcement powers across such a broad area of the internet.

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