Online Safety Bill passes third reading in House of Commons

January 18, 2023

The Online Safety Bill has passed its third reading in the House of Commons. it had returned to the Commons after consideration of a series of amendments by the Public Bills Committee in December 2022.

The Bill has been amended a great deal since it was first introduced, and will be amended further at the Lords stage. However, a significant amendment was moved to introduce a new clause 2, which would impose a criminal liability on senior management tech firms. It would make senior managers liable and open to being prosecuted for failing to proactively promote and support the child safety duties in clause 11, with two-year jail sentences being possible.

Although the Bill already provides for tech companies to be fined for not complying with its provisions, it was argued by some MPs that they will see such fines as a cost for doing business.

Currently the Bill would only make managers criminally liable for failing to give information to media regulator Ofcom, which will regulate tech companies under the new law.

According to the BBC, Wikipedia has criticised the proposed amendment, saying that a distinction should be made between centralised content moderation carried out by employees and Wikipedia-style moderation by communities volunteers. This is the case in the EU Digital Services Act.

The amendment was withdrawn, but only on the understanding that the government will introduce it at the end of the ping pong stage between the Lords and Commons.

The Secretary of State has issued a Ministerial Statement in relation to the Bill. She says that the Irish Online Safety and Media Regulation Act will be used as a model to introduce criminal liability – the Irish Act introduces individual criminal liability for failure to comply with a notice to end contravention. In particular, she says “will be carefully designed to capture instances where senior managers, or those purporting to act in that capacity, have consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children. The criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines, will be commensurate with similar offences. While this amendment will not affect those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way, it gives the Act additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children.

The statement also contained updates about adding immigration and modern slavery offences to the list of the priority offences in the Bill.

The government has already announced that it will move further amendments at the Lord state, including create an offence of sending a communication that encourages serious self-harm, criminalising the sharing of people’s intimate images without their consent, and adding provisions to help protect women and girls.

The Bill now moves to the Lords.