The Online Safety Bill and what it means for you

The Online Safety Bill, a proposed Act of Parliament that is intended to improve internet safety, especially for children and vulnerable individuals, is currently making its way through Parliament. It recently made headlines when the encrypted messaging app Signal said it would stop providing its services in the UK if, as it expects, the Bill undermines message encryptions. But what exactly is the Online Safety Bill and what does it mean for you?

What does the Online Safety Bill set out? 

The Online Safety Bill is designed to address several potentially harmful types of internet content. This includes trolling (ie making inflammatory comments to provoke others to display emotional responses or to manipulate their perceptions), illegal pornography and ‘revenge porn’, and certain types of internet fraud.

The cornerstone of the Online Safety Bill is a new duty of care placed on online platforms to protect their users and take action against harmful content. The Bill applies to all ‘user-to-user services’ and ‘search services’. These are any internet services by which content that has been generated, uploaded or shared by a user is encountered (eg read, viewed or heard) by other users.

This means that most social media platforms (like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and TikTok) along with search engines (like Google and Bing) will be affected. It does not matter whether a service provider is based outside the UK, as any platforms that are accessible to users in the UK fall within the scope of the Bill.

What is the duty of care?

The duty of care placed on such online service providers (like social media platforms) entails specific duties, including business’ duties to:

  • actively take steps to ensure that their services are not used for illegal activities or to share illegal content. This is known as the ‘illegal content duty
  • assess the risk levels of their services on a continuous and rolling basis, taking into account the services’ risk profile. This is known as the ‘content risk assessment duty’
  • consider and have regard for the importance of protecting users’ right to freedom of expression when deciding on and implementing safety measures. This is known as the ‘duties about freedom of expression and privacy
  • enable users and other people affected to report illegal and harmful content. Businesses must also ensure that their complaint procedures are accessible to all. This is known as the ‘duties about reporting and redress’
  • keep easy-to-understand written records (eg of risk assessments and measures taken to comply with other duties). Businesses must also regularly review their compliance with all relevant duties. These are known as the ‘record-keeping and review duties’

Further duties of care

Further duties of care also exist in relation to services that are likely to be accessed by children. These are in line with the Age Appropriate Design Code and include specific risk assessment duties and the duty to protect children’s online safety.

Any providers of ‘Category 1 services’ are also subject to further duties of care. What ‘Category 1 services’ are will be defined later in secondary legislation, however, they will be limited to the largest global platforms. These further duties cover adults’ risk assessment duties, duties to protect adults’ online safety, duties to protect content of democratic importance and duties to protect journalistic content.

For more information, read the Government’s guidance on the expected impact of changes to the Online Safety Bill.

What if a service provider doesn’t comply with the Bill?

Under the Online Safety Bill, Ofcom will have a variety of regulatory powers. These powers include imposing fines of up to £18 million or 10% of a service pro will have a variety of regulatory powers. These powers include imposing fines of up to £18 million or 10% of a business’ annual turnover, whichever is higher, and being able to prevent sites from operating (eg by requiring internet service providers and app stores to stop working with them).

What does the Online Safety Bill mean for me?

The Online Safety Bill intends to grant internet users more control over what they see online and who they can be contacted by. It also aims to protect children by preventing them from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content (eg by requiring age verification) and by requiring service providers to take extra steps to protect children. By providing all service users with clear and accessible ways to report problems online, the Bill hopes to reduce the harm caused.

For online service providers and the tech industry, the Online Safety Bill means that changes may soon need to be made so that businesses can take proactive steps to ensure the safety of their users. In many cases, this would involve a change to how the business and its services are run, including by implementing age verification systems to prevent children from accessing harmful content, working towards removing harmful content from platforms, and providing easy-to-use reporting tools for users to report harmful content or conduct. Overall, the Online Safety Bill would represent a significant change in the way that businesses operate online, and would require them to take a more proactive role in ensuring the safety of their users.

For more information, see the Government’s guide to the Online Safety Bill and do not hesitate to Ask a lawyer if you have any questions or concerns.

Rebecca Neumann