Social media sites will no longer be required to remove material designated as “legitimate but harmful” as part of the government’s proposed online safety plan.
This Online Safety Act Amendments will be made, with controversial but key measures removed, before returning to parliament next week after numerous delays.
The government said it was making changes amid concerns that the original plan meant the biggest platforms would have to remove not only illegal content but also any material named as legal but potentially harmful.
Free speech campaigners claim the bill could be used by governments or tech platforms to censor certain content, but charities and opposition parties say it is an important step to protect children.
Platforms will now be required to remove illegal content and any material that violates their terms of service.
but not platform Removing the legal but harmful duty, they would have to provide adults with tools to hide certain content they don’t want to see – including potentially harmful content that doesn’t meet the criminal threshold, such as the glorification of eating disorders, misogyny and some other forms of abuse.
The government calls it a “triple shield” of online protection while allowing free speech.
However, Labor and Samaritan leaders have sharply criticized the amendments.
Samaritans chief executive Julie Bentley said removing the “legitimate but harmful” requirement was a “huge step backwards”.
“Of course, children deserve the strongest possible protections, but the damaging effects of this type of content don’t end on your 18th birthday,” she said.
“Increasing people’s control is no substitute for passing laws to hold websites accountable, and it feels like the government snatched defeat from victory’s mouth.”
The move will “encourage abusers, COVID deniers and hoaxers”
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said it was a “significant weakening” of the bill, adding: “Replacing harm prevention with an emphasis on free speech defeats the real purpose of the bill and will encourage abusers, COVID deniers, hoaxes , they will be encouraged to thrive online.”
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It is understood the government will also update the Act to promote child online safety through greater accountability and transparency.
Tech companies will be required to publish on their websites a summary of risk assessments about potential harm to children, show how they enforce user age restrictions and publish details of enforcement action against them by the industry’s new regulator, Ofcom.
Under the updated rules, platforms will also be prohibited from deleting users or accounts unless they clearly violate the site’s terms of service or the law.
‘Young people will be protected’
Culture Minister Michelle Donelan said: “Unregulated social media has hurt our children for too long and it must end.
“I will bring back the enhanced online safety bill to Parliament to empower parents to see and act on the dangers websites pose to young people.
“Nor is it under any threat that tech companies or future governments could use the law as a license to censor legitimate views.
“Young people will be protected, criminal activity will be stopped and adults will be able to control what they see and engage with online.
“We now have a binary choice: enact these measures into law and improve the status quo, or argue the status quo and put more young lives at risk.”
Other updates to the bill were announced last week, including Criminalize the encouragement of self-harm As well as “belittling” and sharing pornographic deepfakes.
The government confirmed that further amendments aimed at strengthening protections for women and girls online will be tabled shortly.
The Victims Commissioner, Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Children’s Commissioner will also join the bill as statutory advisers, meaning Ofcom will have to consult them to draft a new code of conduct for tech companies so they can comply with the Act.
Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza said this would ensure “children’s perspectives and experiences are fully understood”, adding that she was “determined to get this bill through Parliament”.