Brand Protection Insight: UK Online Safety Bill
Part of our Virtuoso Vigilance brand protection series. For more information about our Virtuoso Vigilance complete brand protection solution, get in touch with our team here.
by Kostas Retzopoulos
United Kingdom, October 2021
Back in May of this year, the UK Government published the Draft Online Safety Bill, a UK Parliament Act with provisions for the regulation of Internet services (aka “regulated services”) and what OFCOM’s powers and duties will be in relation to these regulated services.
To add a bit more meaning, regulated services are either a regulated “user-to-user” service or a regulated “search service”. The nascent Bill will have to go through several hoops until it finally becomes Law by the powers of Queen and UK Parliament, and it is roughly expected to be in power by 2024, if not (much) later.
As it seems, the Bill is already becoming controversial, sparking a lot of debate amongst groups that wish to safeguard and protect the democracy of the web -most importantly the right to free speech.
The Safety Bill is aimed at the Internet’s damaging, abusive and mainly illegal content that many of us have heard of or known to be dangerously easily available online. Until now voluntary action by the industry to self-regulate has not been successful or adequate to protect vulnerable users from harm online.
The unprecedented course of recent events (e.g. the Covid-19 pandemic) has caused an enormous surge in the use of the internet, meaning that the industry has found it almost impossible to deal with the constantly shifting online environment by implementing knee-jerk or not well-thought-through actions, rules and policies.
In comes the UK Government to save the day and those at risk, by proposing to take the role of policing the Internet by law and switch gears from reactive (industry) solutions to proactive law-enforceable results. This shift is seen as potentailly problematic by many.
Strict legal oversight of the internet?
Local or overseas giant tech companies and digital platforms have a significant number of users in the UK and direct access to the UK market, which like anywhere else in the world, is now consuming not just your traditional goods and services of the “old world” but also content, a new digital commodity with its own powerful currency.
Thus, the new Bill is looking to extend its long arm to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that allow user-to-user sharing (or user-generated content) and search services that host, offer access to and allow the proliferation of explicit material, underage exploitation, hatred, racism, terrorist ideas, intolerance, bullying, coercion and blackmail.
But questions are arising in relation to the dimensions of free speech, tolerance, political and social debates on sensitive subjects and the freedom to express ideas that instead could harm or go against political or commercial interests and agendas.
There are already concerns by campaigners that controversial legal content can easily be censored and deemed “harmful” giving power to lobbies to force social networks and other internet providers to take down perfectly legal content that is not considered politically correct.
In other words, the law provides potential for, a controlled, manipulated censorship that chooses arbitrarily what content can be accessible. So, is this new Bill looking at blocking the bad guys from harming society and the internet community as a whole, or does it propagate Orwell-fashioned powers to stifle free speech and disseminate controlled content?
The road is still long for the new Bill to come into force and too early to know whether the new legislation will have a (positive) impact on the online world and will truly protect online users from harm and abuse, whilst allowing freedom of speech and offering grounds for democratic debate, social and political discourse, unprejudiced journalism, innovative ideas and illuminating thinking.
The early pressure surrounding the bill, however, is encouraging insofar as it establishes a definitive line against "mission creep" where the well-meaning tenets of the bill might be misused.