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New protections for children and free speech added to internet laws

Education: Secondary / Tue 29th Nov 2022 am30 08:18am

NEW internet safety laws will go further than before to shield children and protect free speech online, thanks to improvements proposed by the government.

Any incentives for social media firms to over-remove people’s legal online content will be taken out of the Online Safety Bill. Firms will still need to protect children and remove content that is illegal or prohibited in their terms of service, however the Bill will no longer define specific types of legal content that companies must address.

This removes any influence future governments could have on what private companies do about legal speech on their sites, or any risk that companies are motivated to take down legitimate posts to avoid sanctions.

New measures will also be added to make social media platforms more transparent and accountable to their users, as a result of amendments the Government will propose.

The changes will offer users a ‘triple shield’ of protection when online: social media firms will be legally required to remove illegal content, take down material in breach of their own terms of service, and provide adults with greater choice over the content they see and engage with.

Parents and the wider public will benefit from new changes to force tech firms to publish more information about the risks their platforms pose to children so people can see what dangers sites really hold.

Firms will be made to show how they enforce their user age limits to stop kids circumventing authentication methods and they will have to publish details of when the regulator Ofcom has taken action against them.

Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan said:

Unregulated social media has damaged our children for too long and it must end.

I will bring a strengthened Online Safety Bill back to Parliament which will allow parents to see and act on the dangers sites pose to young people. It is also freed from any threat that tech firms or future governments could use the laws as a licence to censor legitimate views.

Young people will be safeguarded, criminality stamped out and adults given control over what they see and engage with online. We now have a binary choice: to get these measures into law and improve things or squabble in the status quo and leave more young lives at risk.

Today’s announcement refocuses the Online Safety Bill on its original aims: the pressing need to protect children and tackle criminal activity online while preserving free speech, ensuring tech firms are accountable to their users, and empowering adults to make more informed choices about the platforms they use.

It follows confirmation that the Bill will include new measures to make significant changes to the UK’s criminal law to increase protections for vulnerable people online by criminalising the encouragement of self-harm and the sharing of people’s intimate images without their consent.

To make sure the Bill’s protections for adults online strike the right balance with its protections for free speech, duties relating to “legal but harmful” content accessed by adults will be removed from the legislation and replaced with the consumer-friendly ‘triple shield’.

The Bill will instead give adults greater control over online posts they may not wish to see on platforms. If users are likely to encounter certain types of content – such as the glorification of eating disorders, racism, anti-semitism or misogyny not meeting the criminal threshold – internet companies will have to offer adults tools to help them avoid it. These could include human moderation, blocking content flagged by other users or sensitivity and warning screens.

The legal but harmful measures will be replaced with new duties which strengthen the Bill’s free speech requirements on major online platforms to make them more accountable for their policies. It will explicitly prohibit them from removing or restricting user-generated content, or suspending or banning users, where this does not breach their terms of service or the law. In addition, firms will need to have clear, easy to understand and consistently enforced terms of service.

It comes as new polling from Ipsos reveals that 83 per cent of people think social media companies should have a duty to protect children who are using their platforms (only 4 per cent disagree). Eight in ten people (78 per cent) want social media companies held accountable for keeping underage children off their platforms (only 7 per cent disagree).

There is overwhelming public backing for action. Eight in ten people (81 per cent) think the government should make sure social media companies protect children when they are online and 77 per cent think social media companies should be punished if they don’t protect children.

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair of Kick it Out, said:

Users of social media have benefitted from a right that does not exist in the real world. Not only do they have freedom of speech but they have the freedom to force you to hear it. People who play, watch and work in football are often the victims of such vicious trolling

We welcome the principle of extending the user empowerment provisions in the Bill to close this loophole. Social media companies will need to make available technology that enables each of us to have the online experience we desire. We shall review the amendments to the Bill in detail but encourage parliamentarians to move quickly.

The Bill is due to return to Parliament next week. The first amendments have been tabled to the Bill in the Commons for Report Stage on 5 December. Further amendments will be made at later stages of the Bill’s passage.

As well as making larger tech companies publish a summary of their risk assessments concerning the dangers their platforms pose to children, other moves to boost transparency and accountability include giving Ofcom a new power to require platforms to publish details of enforcement action it takes against them.

Another set of amendments will boost protections for women and girls online by adding the criminal offence of controlling or coercive behaviour to the list of priority offences in the Bill. This means platforms will have to take proactive steps, such as putting in measures to allow users to manage who can interact with them or their content, instead of only responding when this illegal content is flagged to them through complaints

In addition, the Victim’s Commissioner, Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Children’s Commissioner will be added as statutory consultees in the Bill, meaning Ofcom must consult with each when drafting the codes tech firms must follow to comply with the Bill.

Dame Rachel De Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:

I am pleased that Government is bringing back the Online Safety Bill to Parliament. This landmark legislation is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect all children online, particularly the most vulnerable. “That’s why I am glad that the Children’s Commissioner is now recognised on the face of the Online Safety Bill as a statutory consultee to Ofcom’s codes of practice. This will enable me, in my unique position as representative of children’s rights and views, to oversee the codes which tech firms must follow to comply with the Bill – ensuring that children’s views and experiences are fully understood.

We cannot allow any more children to suffer. The loss of children by suicide, after exposure to hideous self-harm and suicide content, are tragic reminders of the powerful consequences of online material. I am determined to see this Bill pass through Parliament. I will work to ensure that children’s voices and needs underpin each stage of the legislative process. I look forward to us all getting behind such a crucial moment to protect children online.

Campaigner Lucy Alexander said:

We live in an online world where bullying is 24/7. Young people are bombarded by harmful content online and there is no room for escape. It is on their phones, in their bedrooms and with them on their way to school.

My son Felix was driven to suicide at the age of 17 due to the barrage of bullying he experienced online. This is the reason why I am on a mission to make sure no other child feels as much pain as he did. One death is one too many.

The Online Safety Bill is a step in the right direction, it will hold social media accountable for protecting children online. The new changes to the bill will also see social media firms forced to publish risk assessments so that parents can see for themselves the dangers and risks that face children on these sites. It is time to prioritise the safety of our children and young people online.

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1 Comment for New protections for children and free speech added to internet laws:

David Forman
2022-12-01 01:00:15

A good outcome of the Bill is "social media firms forced to publish risk assessments so that parents can see for themselves the dangers and risks that face children on these sites." Also, the new draft of this Bill does not remove the criminal offence provisions of section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Section 127 helps to protect victims of abusive communications.

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