The Online Safety Bill has been strengthened with the addition of a number of new criminal offenses to force social media companies to act faster on illegal content, the government has announced.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has confirmed that offenses such as revenge pornography, hate crimes, fraud, selling illegal drugs or weapons, promoting or facilitating suicide, trafficking in persons and sexual exploitation have been added to the list of priority offenses and as such must be removed by platforms under the new rules.
Previously, sites would have been forced to remove this content after it was reported to them by users, but now they should be proactive and work to prevent users from encountering this content in the first place.
The government said naming these offenses on the face of the bill also allows proposed regulator Ofcom to take faster enforcement action against companies that don’t remove it.
The changes come after three separate parliamentary committee reports warned that the bill needed to be strengthened and made clearer to tech companies about what was expected of them if it was to offer adequate protection.
“This government has said it will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while guaranteeing freedom of expression, and that is exactly what we are going to do,” said Mrs. Dorries.
“Our world-leading bill will protect children from online abuse and harm, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content and ensuring there is no safe space where terrorists can hide online.
“We are listening to the MPs, charities and campaigners who have wanted us to strengthen the legislation, and today’s changes mean we will be able to apply the full weight of the law against those who use the internet as a weapon to ruin people’s lives and therefore make it faster and more efficient.
Three new criminal offences, recommended by the Law Commission, are also to be added to the bill in a bid to bring criminal law into the internet age, the government said.
The new offenses cover communications sent to convey a threat of serious harm; those sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse; and those sent that are known to be false with intent to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological, or physical harm.
Damian Collins, chairman of the joint committee on the online bill that led the review of the bill, said he welcomed the changes and that they would benefit users.
“The committee recommended that the government build on existing offenses in other areas of the law, writing on the front of the Online Safety Bill exactly which offenses the platforms will need to mitigate,” it said. he declared.
“I am glad this is the plan, with revenge pornography, fraud, hate crimes, encouraging and assisting suicide and facilitating illegal immigration clearly implemented.
“We also recommended that the government adopt new communication offenses in the bill, as drafted by the Law Commission.
“Once again the government has proven it is serious about making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, by committing to criminalize the willful sharing of treatment dangerous Covid-19 pranks, and threatening to inflict physical violence, as well as seriously considering making specific offenses for cyberflashing, promoting suicide and self-harm, and sending flashing images to people suffering from epilepsy.
“These changes will give social media companies more clarity on what is expected of them, and users more certainty that they will be protected, especially children.
“The Prime Minister has made it clear that he wants this bill introduced during this parliamentary session, and I look forward to speaking in favor of it soon.”
Meanwhile, the Labor Party has called for the bill to be further strengthened with tougher penalties for senior company executives who breach new online safety laws.
The Online Safety Bill proposed to make senior executive criminal liability a secondary power that could be introduced two years after the Bill’s implementation – however ministers have since said they want to speed up this within three to six months of implementation.
But shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell has called on the government to go further and introduce criminal penalties for executives as soon as the bill takes effect.
“The Online Safety Bill is too weak to make big tech companies sit up and take heed, and ensure hate, crime and child abuse are stamped out in the online world. “, she said.
“Regulator Ofcom will take on some of the biggest tech companies in the world.
“It’s a David and Goliath situation, and Ofcom must have access to the full range of tools at its fingertips, including holding big bosses criminally liable for failing to tackle damage online. “
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