March 21, 2022
At the same time as introducing the Online Safety Bill to Parliament (see here), the Government published its response to the Joint Committee’s report. The Joint Committee’s report made several recommendations about the draft Bill, including:
- making “big tech” comply with Ofcom or face sanctions;
- giving Ofcom greater powers to investigate, audit and fine companies;
- giving Ofcom powers to draw up mandatory Codes of Practice and to be able to introduce additional Codes as new problem areas arise;
- giving Ofcom powers to require service providers to conduct internal risk assessments to identify reasonably foreseeable threats to user safety;
- including robust protections for freedom of expression;
- bringing paid-for advertising into scope in order to tackle scams and fraud; and
- requiring service providers to have an Online Safety Policy that users agree to.
Key points from the Government’s response:
- protecting users from illegal content and activity: in recognition of the detrimental and devastating effects that fraudulent ads can have on those affected by them, the Government has introduced a new standalone duty in the Bill requiring Category 1 services to minimise the likelihood of fraudulent adverts being published on their service, and if these services fail to take adequate action they could face “stringent enforcement action”; the Government has also included priority offences and fraud offences on the face of the Bill, as recommended by the Joint Committee; the Government notes that these services will still have to remove illegal content relating to criminal offences that do not appear on the list of priority offences if it is flagged by users;
- anonymity: the Bill has been strengthened by including two new additional duties on Category 1 services to ensure adult users are given the option to verify their identity, and tools to have more control over the legal content that they see as well as who they interact with, including giving adults the option not to interact with unverified users;
- communications offences: the Government accepted the Law Commission’s recommendations to introduce offences on harm-based communications, false communications and threatening communications and these have been added to the Bill; the Government says that it welcomes the Law Commission’s recommended offence of cyberflashing, and this will also be included;
- child safety: the Government accepts the points made by the Joint Committee on the need to ensure children are protected from access to pornography on dedicated sites as well as on social media; the Bill now includes a provision requiring all service providers that publish or display pornographic content on their services to prevent children from accessing this content; and
- enforcement: the Government fully supports the Joint Committee’s belief that the senior executives of services need to be held accountable for the actions that their services take; the legislation therefore no longer defers the power to bring in criminal sanctions for failures to comply with information notices, and this will instead be introduced as soon as possible after Royal Assent (likely to be two months after); the Bill also allows Ofcom to require a company with a substandard risk assessment to take measures to mitigate those risks it has missed, at the same time as it redoes its risk assessment in order to encourage services to put safety at the heart of their service, whilst promoting innovation and development.
To read the Government’s response in full, click here.