When Facebook has more subscribers than Christianity, it is hard to deny the significance and reach of social media companies and the online world more widely. Collectively, the most important players in the online world have the ability to frame the political agenda, shape the views and behaviours of their users and even influence democratic outcomes. It is therefore welcome that the Government have brought forward the Online Safety Bill. The Bill goes further than any other nation has done so far, bringing to heel the excesses of social media companies through a regulatory model, which will introduce ground-breaking laws to protect children online and tackle the worst abuses on social media, including racist hate crimes.
Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries has also prioritised additional illegal offences to be written on the face of the Bill. This removes the need for them to be set out in secondary legislation, allowing faster enforcement action against tech firms which fail to remove the named illegal content. These offences include but are not limited to: revenge porn; hate crime; fraud; weapons offences; the promotion or facilitation of suicide; people smuggling; and incitement to and threats of violence.
A recent strengthening of the proposed legislation will mean that firms must remove harmful content that has been reported to them and must prevent people being exposed to it in the first place. Ofcom, the UK’s independent communications regulator, will oversee the regulatory regime, backed up by mandatory reporting requirements and strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance. These powers include issuing fines of up to ten per cent of annual worldwide turnover to non-compliant sites or blocking them from being accessible in the UK.
The Government has acted on recommendations set out by the Law Commission in its report on harmful online communications. New provisions include the introduction of a harm-based communications offence and an offence for when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to inflict harm. Furthermore, I welcome the decision to create a new cyberflashing offence with perpetrators facing up to two years behind bars. I understand that the Government is also considering the report’s recommendations on specific offences relating to epilepsy trolling.
More broadly, I am encouraged that this Bill delivers on the manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online by improving protections for users, especially children, whilst protecting freedom of expression.