Britain’s controversial Online Safety Bill will soon become law after passing through parliament on Tuesday.
The sweeping legislation places strict news content moderation rules on social media companies. Platforms will become legally responsible for the material they host.
Under the new rules, platforms will have to quickly remove any illegal content — or stop it from appearing in the first place. They also must prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content, and enforce age limits and age-checking measures.
Those that fail to take rapid action face fines up to £18mn (€20.8mn) or 10% of their global annual revenue — whichever is biggest. In some cases, executives of platforms could even be imprisoned.
Michelle Donelan, the UK’s technology minister, said the rules would “make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.”
“The Online Safety Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation,” she said.
Children’s charities have welcomed the legislation, but digital rights activities and tech companies have raised alarm about certain implications.
Messaging platforms have been particularly opposed to the potential scanning of encrypted messages, while privacy advocates fear that free speech will be restricted. Wikipedia, meanwhile, has warned that it won’t comply with the requirement for age checks. The online encyclopedia has even threatened to withdraw from the UK over the rules.
In the six years since the bill was first proposed, some of the concerns have been addressed by amendments. Notably, lawmakers last year replaced the focus on “legal but harmful” content with an emphasis on child protection and illegal content. The government has also promised to protect end-to-end encryption, but critics have dismissed the pledges as “delusional.”
Donelan has sought to allay their fears.
“Our common-sense approach will deliver a better future for British people, by making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online,” she said. “It puts protecting children first, enabling us to catch keyboard criminals and crack down on the heinous crimes they seek to commit.”
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