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The Online Safety Bill – and what it really means for families

The government today unveiled its draft Online Safety Bill in Parliament – outlining what it describes as ‘landmark laws’ to protect children and young people online. 

While a good deal is still to be decided on the Bill’s passage through parliament, we know the world’s biggest social media companies will have a legal duty to prevent and remove harmful content – or face substantial fines and even criminal action. 

This should be a major step forward in creating a safer, more transparent online world for children and young people.

It has been a long time coming. Parent Zone has been heavily engaged in the arguments for this Bill (see our response to the Online Harms White Paper and to the government's subsequent review in December 2020). We welcome today’s announcement and will be keenly following the draft Bill’s progress into law. 

So, what does the Online Safety Bill mean for families? Here’s what you need to know...


What is the Online Safety Bill and how will it support families?

The draft Online Safety Bill is a set of new laws designed to protect against risks and harms online – with particular focus on the safeguarding of children and young people. The laws are applicable to any site accessed from the UK, regardless where the site is based. 

As part of these laws, all sites will have a ‘duty of care’ towards children. The largest sites (known as Category 1, and including Facebook and Twitter) will additionally be required to take action on harms affecting users over 18.  

The intention is to protect children and young people against a comprehensive range of online harms – from terrorism and racism to abuse and pornographic content. 

The Bill will also take steps to tackle abuse on social media platforms – including private messaging services. It will hold sites to account over the spreading of illegal, harmful content, including disinformation.

How will the Online Safety Bill hold these sites to account?

The ‘duty of care’ is modelled on Health and Safety legislation, meaning companies need to make their services safe for the public to use. 

Ofcom has been confirmed as the regulator and will hold companies to account. Finer details of how they will do this will emerge as the Bill comes under closer scrutiny across its 145 pages.

We do know that Ofcom’s powers as regulator will include the ability to block sites and fine companies failing to meet this duty of care up to £18 million or 10% of annual global turnover, whichever is higher. 

Ofcom will also have a deferred power to introduce a new criminal offence for senior managers – which could be introduced later on if tech firms don’t live up to their new responsibilities.

Will the Bill make a difference?

This Bill will undoubtedly make a difference – but until Ofcom’s Code of Practice for enforcing it is published, it’s hard to say exactly how much. 

Concerns have been raised over the true significance of the fines Ofcom is able to impose on tech giants, the exact circumstances in which these fines would be imposed and how criminal action against companies’ senior managers might be introduced.

But we agree these are all steps in the right direction and will improve outcomes for children. We will be examining the Bill and commenting further in days to come. 

What happens next?

The draft Bill will be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs later this year. The Government has committed to reviewing the Bill at least every two years once it becomes law. 


Read more: an exclusive blog for Parent Zone by Caroline Dineage MP, Minister for Digital and Culture, on the aims of the Online Safety Bill

Pic credit: MclittleStock / Adobestock.com