How changing internet laws in the UK may affect you

On March 17, 2022, the new “world-leading” online safety law was put before Parliament. The bill is part of the UK government’s plan to make the UK the safest place to go online.

Currently, websites, including social media platforms, are responsible for identifying and removing harmful or criminal behavior from their websites. With the new Online Safety Act, it would be Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, to tell the social media giants what content can and cannot be shown to UK users.

But what exactly is the Online Safety Bill and how does it affect everyday internet users? We have with Dr. Laura Higson-Bliss, Law Lecturer at Keele University, to find out everything you need to know about the new Online Safety Act.

What is the Online Safety Act?

The full title of the proposed legislation reads ‘A Bill determining and relating to the regulation by Ofcom of certain internet services; for and in connection with communications offences; and for related purposes.”

According to the government, the bill was designed so that UK internet users can have a new, safer digital experience that protects children from harmful content, limits people’s exposure to illegal content while protecting freedom of expression. The bill also seeks to hold tech giants accountable for activities on their websites.

“The bill focuses on businesses, forcing them to be more responsive to content on their site [is defined] as illegal or in some cases legal but harmful. Failure by these companies to comply with these new rules would, in some cases, result in fines or jail time,” explains Higson-Bliss.

“There are also provisions within the Online Safety Act to change criminal law in this area, specifically making cyber-flashing a specific offense and making changes to current communications offences.”

Sending unsolicited nude pictures could therefore be prosecuted if there is any doubt as to what “cyber-flashing” means.

How does the Online Safety Act affect me?

The bill aims to tackle online crimes like cyber-flashing, which Higson-Bliss says has been a legal “grey area” because it falls outside the usual definition of indecent exposure.

It also introduces new measures giving internet users more control over who can contact them and what they see online, and requires all websites publishing or hosting pornography to verify that their users are over 18. However, it is currently unclear how porn sites will be expected to verify the age of viewers.

“It also recommends creating a new communications violation for people who are sending harmful communications to another person,” says Higson-Bliss. This applies to websites and social media platforms, but doesn’t apply to things like email, text messages, and phone calls. However, it is not yet clear whether social sites with private messaging features will need to open these mailboxes to check for legal but harmful content.

On 30 March 2022 the bill is on second reading in the House of Commons © bills.parliament.uk

The key to the new, safer internet that the government is trying to establish is identifying and removing illegal or so-called “legal but harmful” content. It’s currently up to the platforms themselves to decide what fits that description, but the bill will put those definitions in the hands of Parliament.

The government says this change “removes any incentive or pressure for platforms to remove legal content or controversial comments,” and gives MPs the responsibility to determine which expressions fall under legal freedom of speech and which must be removed.

All of this means what we see online may look different if the Online Safety Act is passed in its current form, with comments removed and websites hidden until users can verify their age.

Anyone who follows online influencers — people who make a career out of posting about products on social media — might notice an increase in paid promotions, not because there are more, but because influencers don’t say they’re paid for promoting Products on social media could be subject to more severe penalties.

There should also be fewer attempts at scams as social media platforms and search engines will be required by law to prevent paid fraudulent ads from appearing on their services.

Who decides what is “legal but harmful” online?

The new law aims to help “clarify the gray area of ​​what is legal but harmful”, but Higson-Bliss says she has reservations about giving Ofcom the power to regulate what we say online.

An example of activities that might be considered legal but harmful is self-harm content.

“[The government] says that this type of content is legal but harmful and should be removed. But the question is, where do you draw the line? Mental health is an important issue and we should not push such conversations underground. You should be allowed to have open and honest conversations about mental health. So if we censor that now [by deeming it legal but harmful and removing it]are we actually going backwards rather than forwards when it comes to mental health?

Higson-Bliss says the legal but harmful definition is currently so broad that even material relating to things like gambling or alcohol could be considered harmful.

“We see gambling ads in football all the time. Does that now mean that we are not allowed to place this advertising on social media or even discuss it?

How will the bill stop cyber-flashing?

As well as changing what users can post on social media and what content we can see, certain criminal offenses will also be legislated to protect us from things like cyber-flashing – sending explicit images to another person without their consent.

Cyber-flashing can happen on social media sites or in private messages, but has often been linked to people using Apple’s AirDrop feature to send pictures to someone else’s iPhone nearby, says Higson-Bliss.

Read more about online activities:

The Online Safety Act will introduce a new criminal offense that will cover when a person intentionally sends or gives a photograph or film of another person’s genitals with the intention of causing alarm, distress and/or humiliation in the media.

“That [definition] is something that’s being criticized quite heavily at the moment because if you’re sending this image for, say, a joke, your intention won’t necessarily fall under the definition of alarm, distress or humiliation.

The bill also makes it a criminal offense to send or give such a photograph or film for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification if the person sending it knows or believes it will upset, alarm or humiliate the recipient.

Does the new online safety law protect children?

The websites are now being evaluated to determine whether it is possible for children to access the content. Where children can access the website, there is an obligation to “mitigate the effects of harm to children of different ages caused by content harmful to children,” the bill says.

The only way to show that a website is not accessible to children is to set up something like age verification or some other means of age verification. This could mean users are asked to upload their driver’s license as proof of identity or a credit card number.

Age verification for pornographic websites has been debated for a number of years, Higson-Bliss says, but the bill could argue that every website must take steps to ensure children don’t have access to potentially harmful material.

What is not covered by the new law?

While the government said the new law protects freedom of expression, Higson-Bliss says the current draft could endanger freedom of expression “more than before”.

“I think the only thing missing is a balance between freedom of expression and privacy. The new definition of harmful communications proposed in the bill will make it a criminal offense to broadcast a communication harmful to others to a likely audience without a reasonable excuse.”

However, it is unclear where the line will be drawn. What is considered an appropriate excuse?

Higson-Bliss believes the bill will resolve current issues before it goes into effect.

Three children are looking at a cell phone

The new online safety law will affect the websites children can access online © Getty Images

When will it become law?

The bill is currently being discussed in Parliament. It is read several times by members of the House of Commons and submitted to a committee of experts selected to consider the bill before it is sent to the House of Lords. Issues can be addressed and changes made throughout the process.

Although the government has said it will enforce the law later this year, Higson-Bliss is skeptical that it will happen so quickly.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. In my personal opinion, I think it’s very complicated and there’s a lot to clarify. There’s still a lot we don’t know.”

About our expert Dr. Laura Higson-Bliss

dr Laura Higson-Bliss is Associate Professor of Law at Keele University. Her research covers a wide range of communication crimes, in particular online abuse facilitated by social media.

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