The Online Safety Bill just passed the final parliament debate, and it is set to become a future UK law
The Online Safety Bill (OSB) was first discussed in the parliament in March 2022 but was under debate for a long time. It aims to protect all internet users, especially the young age group, from harmful and illegal content, like fraud, child sexual abuse, incitement of terrorism, violence and many other harms. Now, the House of Lords has approved the long-debated OSB, which will most likely become a future law. However, the bill has attracted plenty of criticism from the population, especially from tech companies.
People are trying to fight the possible new law, and in this regard, 68 cybersecurity academics sent an open letter outlining their concerns about the Online Safety Bill, saying that the bill undermined the privacy and safety of online users.
The OSB has faced significant opposition from the tech industry as well. For example, Apple stated that encryption helps citizens defend themselves from identity theft, surveillance, data breaches or fraud, and the OSB seriously threatens that protection. Also, numerous other secure messaging providers, like Element, WhatsApp, Signal and Session, signed another open letter that urged the UK government to rethink this decision.
Still, the bill is currently set to become law. The legislation places a “duty of care” on tech companies, who are supposed to ensure that their users, especially kids, will be safe while navigating online. They say this can be made by publishing risk assessments, enforcing minimum age requirements, reducing access to harmful content, and removing illegal posts.
With this approach, the government thinks the UK will become the “safest place to be online.” Still, this transformation can’t happen overnight, especially when a large proportion of the population thinks the new law can conflict with important human rights and raise serious concerns about freedom, expression, and privacy.
What is the Online Safety Bill?
The Online Safety Bill has 218 pages, 197 sections and 15 schedules, and attempts to regulate internet content better. However, the bill is often vague, so it might not reach its goal in the end. The Online Safety Bill aims to:
● prevent the spread of illegal activity and content such as hate crimes, child abuse and terrorist material
● protect the young age group, especially children, from harmful material
● keep the population away from “legal but harmful” content
The OSB puts the responsibility on tech giants, like Google and Facebook, to figure out new ways to meet the latest legal requirements and moderate the content on the platforms. Companies not complying with the new law could face enormous fines, as Ofcom can fine them 10% of their annual revenue or up to GBP18 million- whatever alternative will be bigger. This means that fines could reach billions of pounds.
The Online Safety Bill wants to ensure social media platforms are responsible for the digital content, and the population will be better empowered to control their lives.
The Criticism of the Online Safety Bill
Over the years, the UK has met several online issues, from illegal content to data breaches. According to https://www.databreachcompensationexpert.co.uk, the UK General Data Protection Regulations require companies to practise adherence to enhance data protection and keep customers safe. However, there were many cases when clients became victims of data breaches because companies didn’t adopt the best practices to protect the database. This is why a law was needed to make citizens safer when they scroll or buy something online.
Still, the OSB has received criticism, and it looks like it presents some dangers to the citizens, like the threat to privacy and freedom of speech. For example, the bill has a clause where tech companies must use their best practices to deploy new technology if the current one cannot scan the content from child sexual abuse material. But to see if messages contain harmful content, companies must examine the messages, and people are not willing to give up on privacy for better security. Also, companies introducing new technologies to scan messages could open the door to other malicious actors. Additionally, with client-side scanning, any email or chat message will be available for third-party monitoring.
The bill requires the stop of spreading illegal and harmful material on the Internet. Also, the “legal but harmful “or the “misinformation and disinformation” content would need to be taken down. While everyone recognizes the danger of disinformation, if the bill becomes a new law, then people will not have the freedom of speech the way it has been so far.
The OSB doesn’t even define harmful content, as the content in this category is almost infinite and very subjective. The bill can lead to an unprecedented form of self-censorship, which people disagree with.
The challenges of regulating the Internet
Some say that the demands of the bill are impossible to adopt. The bill expects that tech companies will inspect end-to-end and private encrypted messages for criminal activity, but to do so, they must violate the privacy of the citizens. Many companies and people don’t agree with this fact, and they even say they will leave the UK if this law is adopted.
People have seen the disadvantages of the Online Safety Bill, and over 60 cryptography researchers and information security have signed an open letter where they strongly disagree with the bill. The letter criticises the proposal to enable the routine monitoring of the activities online to prevent child sexual exploitation. The letter also states that many international providers are unwilling to comply with the new law. This is why they have threatened to leave the UK market if this bill becomes law. They explain that the legislation puts the citizens of the UK in a vulnerable situation, as they will need to adopt weak and compromised solutions for online interactions.
Both WhatsApp and Signal have indicated that they would rather leave the UK than give up on encryption, so the Online Safety Bill still poses plenty of challenges.