UK ‘Online Safety Bill’ Toughens Rules for Policing Harmful Content

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Photo by Fernando Amaro via Flickr

Nothing demonstrates our changing norms of behavior better than social media.

Social media has developed from being a simple tool for broadening communication opportunities to one that is used widely to vilify and attack others who are different. It has become a space for aberrant, even illegal behavior―and as such, creates a challenge to those responsible for public safety.

There are so many examples of content that encourages, aids and abets wrongdoing, from sites that promote suicide and how to do it, to porn sites that exploit young children,  that there’s a danger of accepting this as the “new normal.”

The power of the tech giants that operate and control social media access and content has grown, even as policymakers, legislators and the justice system have failed to keep abreast of an industry that they know very little about.

The UK government is fighting back this year.

An Online Safety Bill, which will give law enforcement expanded powers to prosecute offenders, is set to become law in 2022.

The bill creates a new and significantly more powerful regulatory framework to hold tech giants accountable for their online sites. It imposes a “duty of care” on tech firms to protect the public from harmful online content.

Under the bill, tech companies will be required to appoint an online safety officer who will be held responsible by the UK courts, and it established a regulator who will monitor breaches of the law.

“What’s illegal offline should be regulated online,”  Damian Collins, chair of a joint parliamentary committee that investigated online abuses, told the BBC last fall.

“For too long, big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless…. the era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end.”

Most observers believe, like Collins, the law is long overdue―although some are concerned about what they call  a “gigantic threat” to free speech.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has criticized the bill for what it said was a too-vague definition  of “harmful content.”

And the tech companies, most of them headquartered in the U.S., are also likely to push back―worried that the UK legislation could become a template for other countries.

But for police, the bill offers much-needed tools. We already know that online incitement to violence or terrorism manifests itself in the real world in acts of criminality.  The need to deny criminals online access is critical.

The new law will come with teeth.  It empowers Ofcom, the national communications regulator, to block access to specific web-based services or search engines. Corporate violators of the Act would be liable for fines of up to US $24 million, or 10 percent of their annual turnover, whichever is higher.

Gareth Bryon

Gareth Bryon

Police services everywhere are required to investigate and prosecute crimes committed as a consequence of these activities, and they need the tech companies to step up.

The UK’s Online Safety Bill may not be perfect, but it’s an important step forward in the world of cybersecurity.

Gareth Bryon is a former Detective Chief Superintendent who worked as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigation and forensic science services for over 30 years.

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