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The Online Safety Bill: What Is It and Why Is It Controversial?

The passage of the Online Safety Bill through Parliament will be postponed until the autumn, when a new prime minister will take office.

The decision has spurred a discussion over the significance of the legislation; while some call for a reconsideration of the legislation’s strategy, others call the postponement a “devastating blow” for internet safety.

The Online Safety Bill, seen as a game-changing regulation of the tech industry, aims to impose regulations on social media and other user-generated content-based websites that force companies to remove illegal material from their platforms, with a focus on protecting children from harmful content.

The biggest platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, will also have to deal with specific categories of “legal but harmful” content, which may include things like encouraging self-harm or eating disorders.

All platforms covered by the Bill will have a responsibility to identify and delete illegal content in addition to having strong and transparent terms and conditions.

The categories of legal but harmful content that need to be addressed would then be decided upon by Parliament through secondary legislation, and tech firms would then be required to explicitly state in their terms and conditions what is and is not acceptable on their website and enforce those rules.

According to the bill, free speech would also be protected by exempting news items from the rules and content deemed to be of “democratic importance.”

Companies that violate these new regulations risk being prohibited or paying fines that might total billions of pounds for the larger providers.

Ofcom, the new regulator of the industry, which regulates communications, would be in charge of overseeing all of this.

In order to provide adult users more control over who and what they contact with, the Bill would also compel platforms to implement so-called user empowerment tools.

To stop kids from seeing pornographic content, websites that display such must confirm the users’ ages.

Additionally, platforms will need to take steps to reduce the likelihood of fraudulent advertising appearing on their platform.

Online safety advocates, who contend that more needs to be done to shield people—particularly children—from the vast amounts of harmful content online, have been at conflicts with free speech advocates, who view the Bill as a vehicle for online censorship.

It has been in the making for more than five years and has been overseen by numerous different Governments and ministers, which means it has undergone numerous expansions and reshaping as priorities and important concerns have changed.

The end result is a Bill that is unpopular with campaigners on all sides, either because it is taking too long to enact or because it is thought to be overly wide or stringent.

Children will still be at risk of internet sexual abuse, according to child safety activists, and more needs to be done to combat online networks of abusers.

Meanwhile, campaigners of free speech claim that platforms will remove any problematic information out of concern that they will be punished for it due to the usage of the legal but destructive method and the prospect of massive fines.

Additionally, others argue that granting the big tech companies the ability to modify their own terms and conditions will give them an excessive amount of control over what is and isn’t policed.

Others have expressed concerns about the Secretary of State’s excessive influence over Ofcom in its capacity as regulator at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).

A number of modifications had been proposed before the Bill was postponed to address some of the issues mentioned, but many of them just served to worry activists on all sides.

Free speech advocates harshly criticized a Government amendment that might give Ofcom the authority to require platforms to implement technology to discover and address child sexual abuse, arguing that it could be used to crack encryption and result in bulk surveillance of private messages.

Another amendment that would have prevented platforms from removing content from reliable news publishers before providing them with an appeals mechanism in order to promote free speech and press freedom was rejected by campaigners as a method to encourage the spread of misinformation.

A coalition of civil society groups argued the protections would allow state-backed propagandists to pose as legitimate news publishers and keep harmful content online, turning the UK into a “disinformation laundromat”.

Now that the Bill has been delayed, several groups have welcomed the opportunity to “rethink” certain parts of it.

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