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Online Safety Media Planning and Buying Marketing

Online Safety Bill: why its mission creep will fail to stop the creeps

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By Gordon Young, Editor-in-Chief

September 20, 2023 | 6 min read

Gordon Young, editor of The Drum, reflects that the UK’s Online Safety Bill has passed its final parliamentary stages and is now set to become law. Will it work?

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On the surface, the intentions appear noble: making the internet safer, especially for children. But the lawyers are the only people likely to benefit from this dog's dinner of a bill.

It will likely stunt the growth of the UK digital economy while failing in its primary mission of making the internet less perilous. The bill grants sweeping powers to the communications watchdog, Ofcom, effectively anointing it as the regulator of the internet.

Ofcom now has the authority to impose hefty fines for regime violations up to 10% of annual turnover or £18m, whichever is higher. While it may sound robust, the devil lies in the details.

The bill’s journey was far from straightforward. It evolved from a 2019 white paper that primarily focused on combating illegal content like terrorism and child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

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However, along the way, it ballooned into a legislative behemoth, encompassing a broad range of online activities deemed potentially harmful, such as violent content, incitement to violence, suicide encouragement, disinformation, cyberbullying, and the inadvertent exposure of children to adult material. There is even a section dealing with animal cruelty.

Such a haphazard expansion of scope was a recipe for legislative mayhem. Its mission creep can also be attributed to a revolving door of policymakers and shifting political dynamics.

This has led to a series of senior ministers, each steering the legislation in different directions, adding to the legislative quagmire.

The recent emphasis on accelerating the application of criminal liability for tech CEOs, led by Nadine Dorries, raised concerns about potential overreach.

And provisions around forcing tech firms to take down harmful but legal content, even if it was only targeting adults, was deemed a censors’ charter by many.

That provision was watered down, and now the bill forces firms to abide by their terms and conditions and create systems allowing users to filter out content they do not want to see.

One of the bill’s major controversies revolves around its web security and privacy implications.

The legislation encroaches on web security and privacy by endowing Ofcom with the power to mandate content scanning for illegal material.

End-to-end encrypted services have raised red flags, warning of the risks these powers pose, and the like of WhatsApp and Signal threatened to pull out of the UK at one stage. The government attempted to circumvent a direct clash by issuing a carefully worded statement but kicking this can down the road. But many privacy campaigners remain concerned.

Additionally, the bill’s potential to enforce mass age-gating on the UK internet has raised eyebrows. Web services might impose age checks to limit their liability, making users confirm their age to access content.

Before the bill became law, Snapchat had already started closing accounts held by underage kids. But this approach, while well-intentioned, has also sparked concerns about potential censorship and the stifling of information flow.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has vehemently criticized the bill, dubbing it “bad for human rights,” “bad for internet safety,” and simply “bad law.”

He has pledged that Wikipedia will not age-gate or selectively censor articles under any circumstances. This underscores the delicate balance that Ofcom must strike between child safety advocacy and protecting democratic freedoms.

With its vagueness and sprawling scope, the Online Safety Bill threatens to create more problems than it solves.

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Instead of fostering a safer online environment, it raises concerns about state censorship, innovation stifling, and user privacy invasion.

It’s created a legal minefield where lawyers and regulators will find rich pickings, but the rest of us will be left with a diminished digital economy. This safety bill will do more harm than good.

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