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Suzanne Townley

News Editor, Solicitors Journal

Online Safety Bill: senior managers to be criminally liable for offences within two months of Bill becoming law

Online Safety Bill: senior managers to be criminally liable for offences within two months of Bill becoming law


The government has announced a raft of changes to the previously published draft Bill

New online safety laws will be brought before parliament today (17 March). The government has today announced a raft of new measures in the Online Safety Bill, with significant changes to the previously published draft bill, which include tougher and quicker criminal sanctions for tech bosses and new criminal offences for falsifying and destroying data.

The Online Safety Bill aims to make the internet safer for users and hold tech companies to account. It also seeks to protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit users’ exposure to illegal content, while protecting freedom of speech.

Parliament will approve what types of ‘legal but harmful’ content platforms must tackle. Social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites that allow people to post content will be required to protect children, tackle illegal activity and uphold their stated terms and conditions.

Regulator Ofcom will have the power to fine companies up to ten per cent of their annual global turnover for failure to comply with the law, and force them to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites.

A raft of changes have been made to the Bill since it was first published in draft in May 2021. Changes announced today include:

  • Bringing paid-for scam adverts on social media and search engines into scope to combat fraud.
  • Making sure all websites which publish or host pornography, including commercial sites, put robust checks in place to ensure users are 18 years old or over.
  • Adding new measures to clamp down on anonymous trolls to give people more control over who can contact them and what they see online.
  • Making companies proactively tackle the most harmful illegal content and criminal activity quicker.
  • Criminalising cyberflashing.

The Bill gives Ofcom powers to demand information and data from tech companies, including on the role of their algorithms in selecting and displaying content, so it can assess how they shield users from harm.

Ofcom will be able to enter companies’ premises to access data and equipment, request interviews with company employees and require companies to undergo an external assessment of how they’re keeping users safe.

The government also announced senior managers of large online platforms whose companies fail to cooperate with Ofcom’s information requests could now face prosecution or imprisonment within two months of the Bill becoming law.

In the draft Bill, this power was deferred and could not be used by Ofcom for at least two years after it became law. However, the period has been reduced to two months to strengthen penalties from the outset.

It was also announced today that in-scope companies’ senior managers will be held criminally liable for suppressing, destroying or altering evidence; for failing to comply with, obstructing or delaying Ofcom when exercising its powers of entry, audit and inspection; and for failing to attend or providing false information in interviews with Ofcom, and for obstructing the regulator when it enters company offices.

Those found liable could be imprisoned for up to two years or fined.

In another change announced today, social media platforms will only be required to tackle ‘legal but harmful’ content, such as exposure to self-harm, harassment and eating disorders, set by the government and approved by parliament. As previously drafted, platforms would have been required to consider whether additional content on their sites met the definition of legal but harmful material.

The government has said this change removes any incentives or pressure for platforms to over-remove legal content or controversial comments and will clear up the ‘grey area’ around what constitutes legal but harmful.

The Bill is “balanced and proportionate” with exemptions for low-risk tech and non-tech businesses with an online presence, said the government. It also said the Bill will strengthen users’ rights to express themselves freely online and ensure social media companies are not removing legal free speech. Users will have the right to appeal if they believe their post has been taken down unfairly.

News content will be completely exempt from any regulation under the Bill. The Bill requires social media companies to protect journalism and democratic political debate on their platforms. Ministers will continue to consider how to ensure platforms do not remove content from recognised media outlets.

Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries MP commented: “The internet has transformed our lives for the better. It’s connected us and empowered us. But on the other side, tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platforms. Instead they have been left to mark their own homework.

“We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age. If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms”.