“It puts freedom of expression in the hands of big tech…”, “it is essential to protect children…”, “it threatens the internet as we know it…” “it will save lives…”
The subject of countless hot takes, the Online Safety Act 2023 has received Royal Assent.
Posited as the solution to the harmful impact of exposure to online material – particularly to children – the Act places more responsibility and liability on social media companies… particularly those providing platforms used for the sharing of illegal or abusive content.
These companies will now be obliged, under UK law, to implement measures, such as age verification, before potentially sensitive or harmful material can be accessed.
As with any Act which has implications for individuals’ freedoms and privacy, it has been the subject of heated debate, but has still eventually been pushed through by the Government.
Many think the Government has not helped itself in this regard. Emotive language used this week suggests ministers will continue to dismiss concerns and prevent more informed debate around the potential for misuse and negative impacts of the legislation on rights and freedoms.
The Act itself is part of a worldwide push by national legislators to address the role social media platforms play and to place responsibility on their providers for the content they help share.
The Government will say the overall aim is to make online life safer. The Act imposes financial and potentially criminal liability for breaches, with fines of up to the greater of £18 million or 10% of annual global revenue. Company directors even face prison terms in extreme cases.
So, when will things start to change? Instantly, it seems – ministers say Ofcom will “immediately begin work on tackling illegal content and protecting children’s safety”.
While the overall aim of the Act is to be welcomed, there are arguments that the case for enacting this version of it has not entirely been made.
There are significant concerns from human rights advocates about much legislation in this arena, with worries raised about the eroding of individuals’ rights to privacy and freedom of speech.
There are some vague and worrying elements in the drafting of the Act around removal of content and age verification requirements and the effects on encryption, which some fear may be open to misuse…or even used for Government “snooping” and to deplatform individuals whose views are challenging or problematic.