By Thomas O’Hagan, Managing Director, b4b Group

The prevalence of dangerous or misleading information online has long been subject to intense debate with social media companies coming under heavy criticism for not removing harmful content from their platforms.

There have been numerous high profile incidents including the sluggish response from Facebook and Twitter to the onslaught of racist posts directed towards members of England’s football team following their Euros Final loss, substantiating claims that these companies are not doing enough to combat online hate and abuse.

However, the internet may be about to become a much safer place following the presentation of the UK government’s long awaited Online Safety Bill to parliament.

The Online Safety Bill places responsibility on technology companies such as social media platforms, video sharing sites and search engines to spot anything deemed harmful – but not necessarily illegal – and remove it. Fail to comply, and they’ll face stiff consequences.

The legislation is wide-ranging, with the three main aims of the bill being to protect children from harmful material, protect users from illegal harms and protect adults from legal but harmful content.

Although individuals may face prosecution for posting content defined as ‘harmful’, perhaps the most controversial element of the bill is the strict penalties that tech giants may face for failing to adhere to the proposed new rules.

Tech executives would be criminally liable two months after the law takes force and companies could be fined up to 10 per cent of their annual global revenue for violations.

These stringent measures have been justified as an attempt to ‘reign in’ the power of established tech giants such as Google, Meta platforms Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp as well as TikTok which have risen to prominence more recently.

Despite being welcomed by many as a landmark change for the future of online safety, the draft Bill has also been criticised for its somewhat ambiguous definition of what would be considered ‘legal but harmful’ content. This potentially poses issues related to freedom of speech and expression.

The government has however promised that comprehensive details of what constitutes ‘legal but harmful’ content will be set out at a later stage via secondary legislation.

These issues aside, the presentation of the UK Online Safety Bill will undoubtedly make a real difference and represents a significant step in the right direction as the importance of safeguarding internet users – particularly children – from harm online cannot be understated.

The draft Bill also seems to have set a precedent with the EU recently proposing its Digital Services Act and the US expected to draft similar legislation in the near future.

Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries has stated that the central aim of government is to “make the UK the safest place to go online” and providing appropriate and robust measures are put in place to protect free speech, the Online Safety Bill may be set to achieve this.

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