06 June 2022

Legislation UPDATE: Online Harms Bill

regulatory updates

just what is the Online Harms Bill and what does it mean for businesses?

The Online Harms Bill holds special relevance to us, beyond the fact that it is another piece of regulation for our clients to get their heads around.  Many of us at Lawbox Design are parents, and with 99% of 12–15-year-olds online, the dangers that the digital age poses are very real for us and other parents. 

The Bill is a special one in another way too. Like GDPR, it follows the recent trend in regulation, handing power to the user – to those affected. It is about empowering the people on the receiving end and through knowledge and power driving real change. 

 The Online Harms Bill doesn’t only impact those of us with children, it also gives us as adults a choice on what content we are prepared to see and what content we want to choose NOT to see. With the increased online presence for work and play, we ought to know how to keep ourselves safe, however, online harms are widespread and cannot always be avoided. 

In the first of two articles on the Bill, we will set out what it means for you and explain how the Bill is intended to protect us. In the second of our articles, we will set out what you will need to do to comply with it if you are caught by its provisions.  

what is an Online Harm? 

Simply put, an Online Harm is behaviour online which may hurt a person physically or emotionally.  The Bill recognises that what is posted and sent online can be especially damaging to children. It also considers information that is a threat to safety (terrorism for example) and to integration in the UK (coming together of different people and cultures).  

what are the changes we will see? 

One of the things that the Bill is looking to achieve is a reduction in scam adverts and fake communications.  

The Bill requires Services to make changes which will include ongoing content monitoring and tighter enforcement actions against harmful content published on their platforms. This will include a number of things, not least a requirement to censor and remove ‘legal but harmful’ speech and make sure adverts are not frauds or scams. 

However, businesses are likely to try to make changes to align with their business models and to do what they believe will benefit their users/audience the most, so we may not clearly see this.  If nothing else, it will be a staged process and not easily obvious to us for some time. 

One of the biggest ‘grey areas’ is the requirement to introduce a user-verification model.  That means to make sure that viewers are who they say they are and are in the right age bucket for the content they are viewing.  This brings with it many questions, not least our user experience generally.  Who really wants to have to upload a photo ID when setting up an account.  Perhaps this will become the new norm, perhaps not.  This is something that is hotly debated and will be decided in the coming months. 

We have mentioned that the Bill aims to educate all of us about what our rights are so that we can take ownership of them. Similar to GDPR, there will be recourse and a way to ensure that services stand up and pay attention. Companies will have to listen to users – as Directors will be criminally liable if the company does not act. Users should learn and understand (and companies are obliged to tell us) what technologies they use to help protect us, both adults and children, behind the scenes. Again, like GDPR knowledge of our rights will help us make sure that companies are doing what they should. 

what does this mean or freedom of speech? 

You might have seen that one of the concerns around the Online Harms Bill is that it will prevent freedom of speech, in particular in the context of journalists.  There was a suggestion, which was not included in the Bill, that news content should not be moderated, provided it is not illegal. This is notable because one of the key concerns about the legislation from the right of the Conservative Party was that there needed to be sufficient protection for journalists.   

This issue highlights just one of the challenges that the Bill still faces before it is ultimately passed and becomes law.  It is envisaged that it will become law by the end of 2022 and you can expect to see some changes already coming through before then as companies start to get ready for it. 

If you want to speak to us about what this Bill might mean for you, get in touch. In the next article in the series, we will be speaking about what this means for the companies that will be caught by the Bill.  To see other changes in legislation that are on the horizon this year, download our regulatory tracker here

If, however, this raises other issues that you have long thought about (like many of us have here at Lawbox) in terms of your children’s safety online and whether you’re doing enough, we’re happy to share some of the practical tips that organisations like the NSPCC have shared…

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