Criminal offences proposed for Online Safety Bill

A Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill has recommended major changes to the draft law, including new criminal offences.

The Bill is expected to be put to parliament for approval next year.

The Committee believes the new law should be clearer about what is specifically illegal online and that it should not be up to BigTech companies to determine this.

It agreed with the Law Commission’s recommendations about adding new criminal offences to the Bill. These include making a number of acts illegal, including: cyberflashing, deliberately sending flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy with the intention of inducing a seizure, pornography sites will have legal duties to keep children off them regardless of whether they host user-to-user content.

In addition the committee proposed that content or activity promoting self-harm should be made illegal, such as it already is for suicide.

“The Committee were unanimous in their conclusion that we need to call time on the Wild West online,” said Damian Collins MP, chair of the joint committee on the draft Online Safety Bill. “What’s illegal offline should be regulated online.

“For too long, BigTech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless. A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and in some cases even loss of life.

“The era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end. The companies are clearly responsible for services they have designed and profit from, and need to be held to account for the decisions they make.”

Further conclusions were drawn during an inquiry which was attended by victims of online harms, BigTech companies, Ofcom, experts in the field, and the government, where MPs and peers received hundreds of pages of written evidence. As a result, they concluded that:

• Big tech has failed its chance to self-regulate. They must obey this new law and comply with Ofcom 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.
• And they should 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 conditions of service.

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