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The Online Safety Act 2023: A Brief Look

Written by Charlotte Dixon for the Tech & Media section.




It is becoming increasingly important to be aware of what people are being exposed to online, especially in the case of young children. This article is a brief snapshot of the facts and figures relating to the Online Safety Act 2023.

With the rise of social media amongst young users, there has been increasing concern as to whether young people are being sufficiently protected in online environments. There is an expanding phenomenon of spreading false information online via social media sites such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). Online grooming crimes have risen to a  staggering 80% in just four years[1] and four in ten children between the ages of 8 and 17 have experienced bullying both online and offline.[2] 

 

As of the 26th October 2023, the Online Safety Act has been passed and will officially come into force after Ofcom publishes its codes of practice. Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan stated that she hoped this law would ‘ensure that it will make the UK the safest place to be online in the world.’[3] The aim of this Act is to ‘make provision for and in connection with the regulation by Ofcom of certain internet services; for and in connection with communications offences; and for connected purposes.’[4] In simpler terms, the Act aims to make the use of internet services safer for individuals in the UK by imposing duties upon service providers such as Google and Facebook. Breaking the rules set out in this Act could result in fines of up to 10% of global revenue for tech companies, or a lump sum of £18million (whichever is the larger sum).

 

Despite intense scrutiny from both online safety campaigners and free-speech activists arguing that it failed in its aims to keep people safe and protect freedom of expression and privacy, the Act has largely ended up the same as the original draft. Ofcom is able to fine social media platforms for not removing illegal content such as child sexual abuse, death threats and terrorism.

There is also criminal liability for the failure to protect children from harm, this includes legal content such as the promotion of eating disorders, self-harm or cyberbullying; a similar provision for adults was in the original bill but was scrapped.

 

Free-speech campaigners remain largely unhappy with the Online Safety Act as it is a large and complex piece of legislation that they believe to undermine the freedom of expression and information and the right to privacy.

Online-safety campaigners are more positive in response to the final Act, hoping that it will be a big step in keeping children much more protected in online spaces during their everyday lives. However, the fact-checking organisation Full Fact have stated that the changes from the draft bill have meant that the final law is insufficient ‘to address the way that platforms treat harmful misinformation and disinformation.’[5]

 

Of course, it cannot yet be stated for sure how effective the implementation of this law will be; it remains to be seen if the provisions set out in the Online Safety Act go far enough in protecting users from harm whilst also maintaining the rights to freedom of expression and right to privacy. Ofcom Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes summed this up, stating ‘We know a safer life online cannot be achieved overnight; but Ofcom is ready to meet the scale and urgency of the challenge.’[6]







References

[1] NSPCC ‘Online grooming crimes have risen by more than 80% in four years’ (7th December 2022) https://www.nspcc.org.uk/about-us/news-opinion/2022/online-grooming-crimes-rise/ 

[2] Ofcom ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2022’ (30th March 2022) https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/media-literacy-research/childrens/children-and-parents-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2022 

[3] Department for Science, Innovation and Technology ‘UK children and adults to be safer online as world-leading bill becomes law’ (26th October 2023) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-children-and-adults-to-be-safer-online-as-world-leading-bill-becomes-law 

[4] The Online Safety Act 2023

[5] Imran Rahman-Jones & Chris Vallance ‘Online Safety Bill: divisive internet rules become law’ (26th October 2023) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-67221691 

[6] Department for Science, Innovation and Technology ‘UK children and adults to be safer online as world-leading bill becomes law’ (26th October 2023) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-children-and-adults-to-be-safer-online-as-world-leading-bill-becomes-law

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