Explained: Britain’s online safety bill that aims to regulate Big Tech

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In what could become one of the toughest regulations in Big Tech, the British government introduced the Online Safety Bill into the British Parliament. Passage of the law could see top executives of big tech companies face jail time, sooner than expected, if they fail to comply with a host of requirements imposed by the Office of Communications ( Ofcom) from the UK – a government-approved regulatory body. and the competition authority for the broadcasting, telecommunications and postal sectors.

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What are the main proposals of the bill?

The bill proposes that leaders of social media platforms whose companies do not cooperate with Ofcom’s requests for information can now face prosecution or imprisonment within two months of being notified. entry into force of the bill, instead of two years as previously drafted. These executives could be held criminally liable for destroying evidence, failing to appear or providing false information during interviews with Ofcom, and for obstructing the regulator when he enters the company’s offices. . Ofcom will also have the power to charge non-compliant companies up to 10% of their annual worldwide turnover, force them to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites.

Encrypted private messaging services will need to use “accredited technology” to identify child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) content and quickly remove that content. To use this power, Ofcom must be certain that no other measure would be as effective and that there is evidence of a widespread problem on a service.

Major service providers will also need to make it clear in their terms of service what legal content is acceptable on their sites and provide user-friendly ways to complain if something goes wrong. The categories of content to which companies’ terms of service will have to respond will be defined in secondary legislation and approved by Parliament. For the first time, users will have the right to appeal if they believe their post has been unfairly removed.

Are there exceptions?

The proposed law will require social media companies to protect journalism and democratic political debate on their platforms. News content will be completely exempt from any regulation under the bill. In addition, social media platforms will only be required to tackle “lawful but harmful” content, such as exposure to self-harm, harassment and eating disorders, defined by the government and approved by Parliament. Previously, they should have considered whether additional content on their sites met the definition of legal but harmful material.

Are there any concerns about the proposed law?

Critics of the bill have raised concerns about the threat to free speech and the dilution of security offered by encrypted platforms. They also pointed to the bill’s ability to allow unchecked political speech to thrive on social media platforms, while cautioning against handing a significant amount of power to Ofcom and UK secretaries of state.

“The Bill grants extraordinary discretion to the Secretary of State and Ofcom to design ‘codes of conduct’ which will define ‘legal but harmful’ content. They will also have the power to impose additional requirements such as age verification and undermine end-to-end encryption. The regulator will also have significant leeway over the types of content and platforms to target,” said UK think tank Institute of Economic Affairs.

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Digital rights group Open Rights Group said the bill could encourage “state-sanctioned censorship of lawful content”. “The bill still contains powers for ministers to decide which legal content platforms should try to take down. Automatic parliamentary approvals for ministerial statements will always compromise the independence of the regulator. This would mean state-sanctioned censorship of legal content,” the group said.

Does the UK bill have any similarities to Indian laws?

Some of the proposals in the UK’s Online Safety Bill mirror recent legislation in India regarding the regulation of social media intermediaries. Under new changes to IT rules, which started last year, messaging services with more than 5 million users in India like WhatsApp and Signal must allow identification of the first sender of a particular message. Indian IT rules also require companies like Meta, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. appoint a compliance officer to ensure their platforms are compliant with the law. However, the Chief Compliance Officer’s liability may be incurred in “any proceedings” related to third party content on the platform.

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