UK to change restrictions in online safety bill on 'legal but harmful' adult content

Changes are coming to the UK’s online safety lawmaking, which continues to spark controversy over the impact on freedom of speech. The draft online safety bill has been years in the making, but new Prime Minister Liz Truss has signaled earlier this month that it wants “tweaks” to ensure it does not harm freedom of expression.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning, Michelle Donnellan (pictured above), the new Secretary of State appointed by the Truss to lead the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), hinted that these upcoming changes will focus on restrictions on lawful but harmful speech.

Asked about the new category of “lawful but harmful speech” the bill creates – and whether or not it would keep it – Donelan confirmed “that’s the part we’re going to change”.

She declined to provide exact details of the forthcoming policy changes – saying the changes would be tabled in parliament in due course. However, she specified that the changes would focus on removing restrictions for adults, not children. “This element is in relation to adults,” she emphasized. “The parts relating to children and online safety will not change – and that is the main purpose of the bill and why we are putting it in our manifesto.”

This raises questions about how platforms that do not age-verify their users could prevent children from being exposed to unlimited legal but harmful content that they can show to adults – without A) enforcing the restriction anyway (i.e. f. in case children come across such content), generally purging “legal but harmful content” with consequential harm to speech; or B) verifying the age of all users and thereby placing the UK social network behind a universal age limit; or C) using some form of targeted technology to ensure the age of users they suspect are minors, assuming they are willing to take the legal risks if they fail to identify all minors and end up displaying prohibited content to children.

Pressed on how the bill would protect children if legal but harmful content was allowed, Donelan declined to go into detail – so we’ll have to wait and see whether the government recommends platforms choose A), B) or C) – saying only : “We will ensure that children are protected.”

“The main part of the bill is to make it a priority for social media providers and websites that generate user content and to ensure that if they do the wrong thing we can impose huge fines on them, which would be very punitive and prevent not to do it again and really be a deterrent in the first place,” she added.

The new DCMS Secretary of State was also pressed on the issue of the criminal liability of senior executives. The draft law includes such powers for senior executives in companies who fail to cooperate with regulatory requests for information. However, online safety campaigners are pushing for expanded personal liability powers – calling for prosecutions that could result in fines or even jail time for such individuals.

Donelan confirmed that such expanded powers of criminal liability are not currently included in the bill. And while she did not outright rule out the possibility that the government would consider expanding regulations in this area, she suggested that its priorities (and ideology) were focused elsewhere.

“I’ve only been in the role for two weeks, I’m going to look at the bill round by round – but my clear aim is to get this bill back in the house quickly, to edit the part that we’ve been very open about editing and to make sure we get it in into law because of course we want it to become law as soon as possible to protect children when they access content online,” she said.

“I’m a champion of free speech – absolutely,” she added at another point during the interview, responding to why the government is lifting restrictions on legal but harmful adult content. “We need to make sure we have the right balance in this piece of legislation. And we are a government that will take bold and decisive decisions, but if there are things that need to be reviewed, we certainly won’t shy away from that.

Molly Russell Investigation

In related news, an inquest is being opened today into the suicide five years ago of 14-year-old Molly Russell. The schoolgirl had been viewing pro-suicide and suicide content on Instagram – and her death has spurred campaigners for online safety legislation. The investigation is expected to focus on major technology platforms, questioning their role in the tragedy. The BBC reports that senior executives from Meta and Pinterest are to testify at the inquest after being ordered to appear by the coroner.

Donelan described Russell’s story as “heartbreaking” and said the inquiry, gathering evidence from tech firms, was an “important” moment.

“I think it’s important that this investigation continues. That the key social media players will go to the inquiry, provide information and evidence – so that we can properly access exactly what they did and the role they played,” said the DCMS Secretary of State, adding: “You have to ensure that as a government we prevent horrific incidents like this from happening again.”

Donelan sidestepped the question of whether or not she agreed with criticism from child safety activists that social media companies have made a business decision not to invest in child safety measures. But he added: “We need to hold them to account on these issues, we need to make sure they prioritize the wellbeing and wellbeing of children and young people when they access content online, so we can prevent this from happening again.”

“And that’s why we’re bringing the online safety bill — it’s been through most of the stages in the house.” We need to get it back to the House and get it into law.

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