The Online Safety Bill has the potential to trigger a full-blown shake-up of how we interact online, from shopping, to searching or streaming.
The online world is a cornerstone of modern life: it enables us to stay in touch with those we know, while building communities with those we don’t. The presence of all things digital has surely increased during the pandemic: technology prevented some of the most vulnerable people from becoming isolated, helped children continue learning, and kept companies trading.
Sadly there’s a darker underbelly too: from hate to terrorist content, many of us harbour concerns about the way harm can be spread online.
While the freedom we have to share digital content brings huge benefits, it also begs the question of exposure to harm. Put simply, better guards are needed for the modern world.
Enter the draft Online Safety Bill. This piece of legislation could limit harm and help build trust in our everyday technologies. Companies see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an approach that supports the UK’s flourishing digital economy and makes us a world-leader in online safety. Businesses take this seriously; many are already developing tools to protect their users. But these efforts could be hamstrung if the Online Safety Bill does not also include clear guidance.
Look at the reach of the bill: at least 24,000 business could be impacted, according to the Government’s own numbers. It will only be as effective as companies’ ability to implement it, so it will need to work for firms of all sizes.
Get this wrong, and investment in the UK’s booming tech industry could take a hit at the worst possible time. The Prime Minister’s vision of a high growth innovative economy is exactly what companies are delivering on the ground up and down the country.
Last year, the UK secured $15bn of venture capital investment – the third highest in the world – in tech alone. Our country is also home to 77 tech unicorns valued at over $1bn.
If we’re to lead the world on online safety and kickstart a wave of new companies that boost our country’s competitive edge, the Government must address three crucial areas.
First, it’s vital for Government to clarify the full reach of the Bill. While the focus of the legislation is on content generated by internet users, this categorisation isn’t clear. For example, while SMS and emails are currently not in scope, other private messaging services could be. There needs to be clear guidance to help businesses implement any necessary changes to how they operate and tackle harm more effectively. This needs to be published well in advance. Small businesses simply don’t have the financial power to stump up legal costs to make sense of the bill.
These regulations must also be proportionate. That means measuring the risk content poses alongside its reach. Cumbersome rules for companies where the risk of harm is extremely low will only stifle industry and inward investment.
Any new legislation must be accompanied with clear guidance on content that is harmful but legal. Companies agree they should have accountability and responsibility for removing illegal content like hate crime. But it does get fuzzy without well-defined boundaries enshrined in law.
One example is misinformation, which can be deeply subjective in some instances. Firms’ hands will be tied if they are left to grapple with grey areas by themselves.