Joint Committee makes recommendations on Online Safety Bill

Ofcom’s powers to regulate online harms should be increased

The Joint Select Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill was appointed to consider the UK Government's draft Online Safety Bill and recommend improvements before it goes to parliament. It has now published its report and recommended major changes to the draft Bill before it is considered by the UK parliament in 2022.

As readers will be aware, the draft Bill aims to make internet service providers responsible for what is happening on their platforms, including for crimes like child abuse, fraud, racist abuse, promoting self-harm and violence against women.  There are currently few enforceable sanctions against these activities.  

The main conclusions and recommendations of the Committee are as follows:

  • Big tech has failed its chance to self-regulate. Big tech companies must obey this new law and comply with Ofcom’s rulings as the UK regulator, or face the sanctions.
  • Ofcom should set the standards by which big tech will be held accountable. Their powers to investigate, audit and fine the companies should be increased.
  • Ofcom should draw up mandatory Codes of Practice for internet service providers. For example, they should write a Code of Conduct on risk areas like child exploitation and terrorism. They should also be able to introduce additional Codes as new features or problem areas arise, so the legislation doesn’t become outdated as technology develops.
  • Ofcom should also require the service providers to conduct internal risk assessments to record reasonable foreseeable threats to user safety, including the potential harmful impact of algorithms, not just content.
  • The new regulatory regime must contain robust protections for freedom of expression, including an automatic exemption for recognised news publishers, and acknowledge that journalism and public interest speech are fundamental to democracy.
  • Scams and fraud generated in an aim to tackle harmful advertising such as scam adverts. Paid-for advertising should be covered by the Bill.
  • Service providers should be required to create an Online Safety Policy for users to agree with, similar to their terms of service.

The Committee also believes the Bill should be clearer about what is specifically illegal online. They believe it should not be up to the tech companies to determine this. The Committee therefore agrees with the Law Commission’s recommendations about adding new criminal offences to the Bill. They recommend that:

  • Cyberflashing be made illegal.
  • Deliberately sending flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy with the intention of inducing a seizure be made illegal (known as Zach’s law).
  • Pornography sites have legal duties to prevent children from using their sites regardless of whether they host user-to-user content.
  • Content or activity promoting self-harm be made illegal, such as it already is for suicide.

Further, the report recommends that individual users should be able to make complaints to an ombudsman when platforms fail to comply with the new law. The report also recommends that a senior manager at board level or reporting to the board should be designated the "Safety Controller." In that role they would be made liable for a new offence: the failure to comply with their obligations as regulated service providers when there is clear evidence of repeated and systemic failings that result in a significant risk of serious harm to users.

The Committee believes that the Bill (including these recommendations) will be a huge step forward in keeping people safe online and protecting victims. 

The government now has two months to respond to the committee before the Bill is introduced to parliament next year.

Published: 2021-12-14T13:00:00

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