Online Harms Bill: Lawyers warn new rules will have ‘chilling effect’ and hit businesses unnecessarily hard
Broad and far-reaching legislation to tackle online harms could place a major burden on companies, particularly small businesses, lawyers told City A.M. today.
The Government’s Online Harms Bill, published in March, seeks to address illegal and harmful content on the Internet with the aim of safeguarding UK citizens online.
Companies that don’t comply with the legislation can be fined up to £18m or 10 per cent of their global revenue, whichever is higher. There is no limit on turnover for companies under the legislation.
While the Government has said that less than 5 per cent of all UK businesses will fall under the Bill, a far higher percentage of retailers and ecommerce sites are likely to be affected, as well as the social media platforms the legislation was originally designed for.
Legal experts at law firm RPC warned today that the Bill raises several problems that need to be addressed urgently.
Firstly, smaller companies being forced to recruit extra staff to monitor content posted on their sites, burdening them with significant additional costs and therefore restricting new entrants to the social media market, Rupert Cowper-Coles, partner at the firm, said.
Also, social media companies being overly cautious in removing content to avoid the risk of huge fines, severely impacting freedom of speech.
“This legislation will frighten small businesses to either hire moderators they cannot afford or risk a devastating fine.”Partner Rupert Cowper-Coles
Moreover, social media firms being forced to remove historic content which falls under the scope of the Bill, a major practical problem given the vast amount of content generated on social media in the past 15 years, Cowper-Coles added.
He added that news and entertainment publications deciding they need to switch off their online comments section to avoid the risk of fines, “again curtailing freedom of expression.”
Finally, the unprecedented and contradictory situation of content becoming “illegal” online while the same content is legal in a newspaper, magazine or book, Cowper-Coles said.
“The UK is going to be the first liberal democracy to have this kind of legislation. While the legislation is well intended, it is going to have a lot of negative impacts,” he stressed.
“The Government and Ofcom have said they don’t wish to impose disproportionate burdens on small companies, but the legislation as it stands will do just that,” Cowper-Coles said.
There appears to be a lack of acceptance among some politicians that social media companies already place great focus on protecting their users from online harm, he continued.
For example, major social media companies employ over 60,000 moderators to review potentially illegal and harmful content already.
“This Bill will have a chilling effect on people’s ability to discuss matters freely online.”Partner Rupert Cowper-Coles
“Knowing they could be fined 10 per cent of their global turnover, social media firms will be very quick to remove content they think could potentially break the law. Don’t be surprised if the deletion of content goes much further than the legislation intended,” Cowper-Coles said.
“While measures taken to protect online users – particularly children – are very welcome, this can be done without legislation that disproportionately impacts small companies and threatens individuals’ freedom of expression,” he concluded.