The conversation: the Online Harms Bill
So what’s the story?
The planned Online Harms Bill might not come into effect now until 2023 or 2024 – a delay the House of Lords democracy and digital committee has called “unacceptable”.
I’m guessing that’s bad…What was supposed to happen?
The government had said it aimed to put the bill into effect “as soon as possible” – yet the minister of state for digital and culture Caroline Dinenage would not commit to putting the bill before parliament by the end of 2021…
Seems like “as soon as possible” is open to interpretation… How long has this been in the works for?
Risks and harms online are constantly changing and an Online Harms Bill has been a long time coming. The online world plays a huge part in young people’s lives and it’s important that the services they use have their best interest at heart. So, in 2017, the government began work on a bill that would make the UK “the safest country in the world to go online”.
Wow, so this has already been three years in the making?
Indeed. After a lot of back and forth, the government finally published the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019. This set out the key focuses of the planned bill, but because the online world changes so quickly, it clearly needs to be implemented as soon as possible. Currently, the bill is still in the proposal – or ‘White Paper’ – stage.
Hold up, what ARE the key focuses of the Online Harms Bill?
Although responses to the Online Harms White Paper were mixed, it outlined the main things the bill would focus on. These included:
- Establishing an independent regulator of the internet with the power to issue fines (later revealed to be Ofcom).
- A mandatory ‘Duty of Care’ for tech companies to keep services free of harmful content and protect young users.
- A social media code of conduct which would make it easier to file complaints .
- Greater transparency from tech companies.
That sounds promising! How would it work in practice though?
It would put a lot of pressure on tech companies to make sure that their users’ data are safe and that they are not exposed to harmful content. Failing that, they could face sizable fines, civil or criminal prosecution, or in extreme cases even have their service blocked in the UK.
Regulating the internet, however, is an immense undertaking – and whether Ofcom would be able to execute that mammoth task on top of its other regulatory responsibilities remains to be seen.
So we shouldn’t expect this to come into effect anytime soon then?
From the looks of it – no. Caroline Dinenage said when she presented evidence to the Lords’ committee in May that COVID-19 had slowed the process down significantly. Nevertheless, the committee found the delay to be “unacceptable”.
Lord Puttnam, the committee’s chair, told the BBC: “Here’s a bill that the Government paraded as being very important – and it is – which they’ve managed to lose somehow.
“[The bill would come into effect] seven years from conception – in the technology world that’s two lifetimes.”