Understanding the Online Safety Bill amendments

Amendments to the Online Safety Bill could help make the internet safer for children

The Online Safety Bill is in the press once again, with several important changes to the legislation announced.

What is the Online Safety Bill?

As you may recall, the Bill is all about putting new obligations on tech platforms to protect their users (especially children) from online risks. It also aims to hold them more accountable for what happens on their platforms.

Online safety is a shared responsibility, so it isn’t just up to parents, teachers and children themselves. Instead, this Bill will mean that industry will be expected to do more to keep children safe.

At Internet Matters, we have been digesting the amendments and what they mean for parents and carers. It’s a mixed picture of both positives and negatives.

Positive amendments to the Bill

Self-harm content to be criminalised

The Government has expanded the scope of the Online Safety Bill to criminalise material encouraging self-harm. This amendment will require platforms to actively remove content that encourages an individual to physically harm themself. Additionally, users posting such content could face prosecution.

We welcome this significant addition to the Bill and recognise that self-harm comes in many different forms.

Previous Internet Matters research identified the negative impact that online content can have on young people’s self-esteem and body image, including material related to extreme weight loss. In this report, young people expressed concern around seeing people online with ‘perfect’ bodies, and how this can make them feel insecure about themselves. When young people view this type of content once, the platform’s algorithm typically starts to show more of it. This can result in them viewing increasingly extreme content, such as that which promotes anorexia, one form of self-harm.

That said, the criminalisation of this amendment hinges on how the term ‘self-harm’ is defined, and what it includes. As it stands, MPs will come up with a list of topics they believe are harmful. Platforms will then be expected to observe these topics.

Sharing intimate images to be criminalised

Furthermore, under the new amendments, ‘deepfake’ pornography (pornography that is digitally manipulated to feature a different person’s face) and ‘downblousing’ (images and videos secretly taken down a girl or woman’s shirt) will be criminalised. Regulations around sharing, or threatening to share, intimate images and videos without consent will also be strengthened.

What is sexting? -- Online safety hub
What is sexting? -- Online safety hub
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Unhelpful changes to the Bill

Watering down ‘legal but harmful’ for adults

Social media platforms will no longer be required to remove material designated ‘legal but harmful’ that is viewed by adults. This content includes promoting misogyny or eating disorders.

Instead, platforms will have to provide adults with tools to filter out the content they do not wish to see. With this amendment, adults will be permitted to post anything legal (so long as it complies with the platform’s terms of service).

This amendment comes after former Prime Minister Liz Truss stated that the Bill needed to do a better job of balancing freedom of speech and safety for adults.

We view this as a concerning development. Although platforms will still be required to tackle legal but harmful content for children (including by putting this material behind an age gate), a harmful online environment for adults will spill over to children. Curious children will undoubtably find a way around age verification, however advanced the technology is.

Further delays to the Bill

Removing the provisions against legal but harmful content for adults has resulted in delays to the Bill’s passage through Parliament. Unless the Bill passes by April, parliamentary rules will mean that it will be dropped altogether. The Bill is already five years in the making and further delays are unacceptable.

Conclusions

As we remain the voice of parents in discussions surrounding the Bill, we are advocating for the Government to focus on getting the Bill passed, instead of watering down key provisions. With each day that the legislation is delayed, children are at risk of being exposed to online abuse, violent material, and algorithms that encourage self-harm.

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