The Online Safety Act: the UK’s new law for a safer internet

Posted on September 22, 2023 in Explainers, News.

The UK Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill on Tuesday 19 September 2023. This important piece of legislation sets the rules for social media platforms and search engines operating in the UK. 

CCDH advocated for the Online Safety Bill from its conception. CCDH Chief Executive Imran Ahmed was the first witness to the bill’s parliamentary committee in September 2021, and CCDH’s campaign for researchers’ access to platform data successfully secured two amendments to strengthen data access clauses. Now passed, the Online Safety Act is stronger for the input of individuals impacted by online harms and civil society experts like CCDH.

What does the Online Safety Act do? 

The Online Safety Act sets the rules that social media platforms and search engines must follow. By making platforms legally responsible for the content they host, the Online Safety Act ends a long era of self-regulation in which companies either denied there were problems with their services (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) or marked their own homework, congratulating themselves on fixing problems that remained unchanged. 

The rules of the Online Safety Act will require platforms and search engines to:

  • Identify and remove illegal content, or stop it being viewed by users in the first place 
  • Enforce platforms’ own terms and conditions and other rules of service
  • Enact age-checks and age limiting on content
  • Publish risk assessments
  • Give adult users powers over what they choose to see online
  • Protect children from seeing dangerous content, such as suicide promotion or eating disorder content.

The Online Safety Act also introduces new criminal offenses, making it illegal to encourage or facilitate self-harm or share non-consensual intimate images. It also tackles online fraud by strengthening the law around fraudulent online advertisements and scams.

How will these new rules be enforced? 

The Office of Communications, or Ofcom, has been designated as the regulator for online safety in the UK. The moment the Act becomes law, Ofcom will implement the regulations, first by launching consultations and drafting codes of practice to facilitate compliance.

If platforms do not comply with these rules, Ofcom can fine them up to £18 million or 10% of their global annual revenue. For the biggest platforms, this could mean billions of pounds in fines.

What’s next for online safety? 

The Online Safety Act is a momentous step towards a safer digital world. But the work is not done. How effectively the regulator uses its powers and how the regime adapts to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are just two of many outstanding questions. To answer them, civil society experts like CCDH must be active participants, scrutinizing technology companies and their regulator to ensure the voices of those impacted by online harms are never lost amidst technical jargon and business imperatives.  

CCDH’s STAR Framework set the global standard for social media reform initiatives, and was instrumental in drafting online safety legislation such as the UK’s Online Safety Act. But the STAR principles of Safety by design, Transparency, Accountability, and Responsibility will also apply in our analysis of how the online safety regime has changed the behavior of social media platforms and improved the safety of internet users in the UK. Armed with these insights, CCDH will continue to advocate for STAR principles and internet safety here in the UK, and around the world. 

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