Online safety bill delayed again

Next week’s debate on the online safety bill has been shelved, leaving campaigners to claim that “families continue to pay the price” for inaction

The government’s long-mooted online safety bill has again been delayed.

Intended to formally regulate how internet platforms should respond to harmful content, the final stages of the legislation were due to be debated in parliament next week.

Instead, the time will be given over to allowing MPs to vote on a motion asking whether they have confidence in the government.

The bill will now return to the House of Commons in September, after both the summer recess and the election of a new leader of the Conservative party.

Heavily amended since its introduction by former prime minister Theresa May in 2019, the legislation requires tech giants to protect children from harmful material, stop the distribution of illegal content such as child abuse, terrorist material and hate crime, and protect adults from harmful – but legal – content.

Social media platforms and search engines will be required to prevent fraudulent advertising, while pornography websites will have a duty to stop children from accessing their content by deploying age verification technology.

Failure to comply with the law could see companies face fines of up to 10% of their annual global turnover, or £18 million, whichever is highest.

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The communications regulator, Ofcom, will be handed wide-ranging powers to oversee the law’s implementation. It began recruiting a team of specialists last year and in May 2022 told the Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee – the body scrutinising the legislation –  that it will “need to recruit around 300 additional full-time equivalent colleagues over the next few years”.

Even as it edges closer to becoming law, the online safety bill remains shrouded in controversy. The DCMS committee claims that it still lacks the necessary clarity or robustness to be effective, while Conservative party leadership hopeful, Kemi Badenoch, is among those who fear that the current draft impinges on privacy. “If I’m elected prime minister I will ensure the bill doesn’t overreach,” she tweeted yesterday (13 July). “We should not be legislating for hurt feelings.”

On the other side of the argument, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online policy, Andy Burrows, said:

“Delivering this legislation should be a cornerstone of any government’s duty to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe.

“Any delay will mean families continue to pay the price for the failure and inaction of tech firms who have allowed harm to fester rather than get their house in order.”

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