In a landmark moment for the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Act has received Royal Assent, marking the dawn of a new era in internet safety and choice. With this world-first legislation, the UK is taking a pioneering step to make the internet the safest place globally for children and provide adults with greater control over their online experiences.
A Zero-Tolerance Approach to Protecting Children
The heart of the Online Safety Act lies in its commitment to safeguarding children from the perils of the digital world. Tech companies now bear legal responsibility for preventing and swiftly removing illegal content, encompassing terrorism and revenge pornography. They are also tasked with shielding children from harmful material, including bullying, content promoting self-harm and eating disorders, and pornography.
Failure to comply with these stringent rules can result in substantial fines, potentially reaching billions of pounds. Furthermore, executives of non-compliant tech companies could face imprisonment.
A Historic Moment for Online Safety
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan rightly recognizes this day as a historic moment in ensuring the online safety of British society, not just in the present but for decades to come. The Online Safety Act strikes a balance by protecting free speech, empowering adults, and enforcing the removal of illegal content. However, its primary focus is on protecting children from online harm.
The Act enforces its zero-tolerance approach by requiring social media platforms to:
Swiftly Remove or Prevent Illegal Content
Tech companies must promptly remove illegal content or prevent it from appearing in the first place. This includes content promoting self-harm and other dangerous behaviors.
Restrict Children's Access to Harmful Content
The Act mandates the prevention of children accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content. This includes explicit material, content encouraging self-harm, eating disorders, and violent or bullying content.
Enforce Age Limits and Age-Checking Measures
Social media platforms must establish age limits and use age-checking measures on platforms featuring content that could be harmful to children.
Platforms must be transparent about the risks and dangers posed to children on their sites by publishing risk assessments.
Provide Reporting Mechanisms
Ensuring that parents and children have accessible ways to report online problems is a priority under the Act.
Protecting Children: The Highest Priority
Home Secretary Suella Braverman emphasizes that the strongest protections within the Online Safety Act are geared towards children. Social media companies will be held accountable for the widespread problem of child sexual abuse on their platforms. The Act's mission is to ensure the safety of children, wherever they may venture online.
Combating Cyberbullying and Online Abuse
The Act not only protects children but also empowers adults to have better control over their online experiences. It offers three layers of protection for internet users, ensuring that:
Illegal Content is Removed
The Act ensures swift removal of illegal content.
Social Media Platforms Fulfill Promises
Tech companies are held accountable for the promises they make to users through their terms and conditions.
Users Can Filter Unwanted Content
Users have the option to filter out content they do not wish to see, such as online abuse.
Failure to comply with these provisions could result in fines of up to £18 million or 10% of the tech company's global annual revenue, whichever is greater. This means that significant fines, potentially reaching billions of pounds, may be imposed on the largest platforms.
Strengthening Protections for Women and Girls
The Online Safety Act also addresses violence against women and girls. It makes it easier to convict individuals who share intimate images without consent and criminalizes the non-consensual sharing of intimate deepfakes. Those found guilty of these offenses may face imprisonment, with potential sentences of up to two years for those intending to cause distress or obtain sexual gratification.
A Watershed Moment for Child Safety
The NSPCC Chief Executive, Sir Peter Wanless, describes the Online Safety Act as a watershed moment for child safety. It compels tech companies to protect children from sexual abuse and avoidable harm. Rigorous enforcement will be crucial, with potential eye-watering fines and criminal sanctions for non-compliance.
Ofcom: Ready to Tackle Online Harm
Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive, underscores the importance of these new laws. Ofcom is ready to make a difference in creating a safer online environment for both children and adults in the UK. Their role is to address the root causes of harm while respecting privacy and freedom of expression.
The Online Safety Act's implementation begins with Ofcom's immediate efforts to tackle illegal content, with a consultation process set to launch on 9th November 2023. The Act will be rolled out in a phased approach, with a focus on addressing the most harmful content as quickly as possible.
Industry Initiatives: Preparing for Compliance
Anticipating the Act's enforcement, many social media companies have already started making changes. For example, TikTok has strengthened age verification on their platform, and Snapchat has initiated the removal of underage user accounts.
The UK government, in collaboration with Ofcom, is committed to implementing protections as swiftly as possible, ensuring that the Online Safety Act delivers on its promise to create a safer online environment for everyone.
In conclusion, the Online Safety Act represents a significant step forward in ensuring the well-being of children and providing adults with the tools to navigate a safer digital world. With its robust legal framework, it ushers in an era where the UK is set to become a global leader in online safety and choice.