The Online Safety Act came out in 2019 in the form of a white paper, a government policy document.
its goal? Regulate online content to help keep users safe, especially children, and hold companies accountable to protect people from abusive messages, bullying and pornography.
But the government also wants to balance online security with freedom of speech and privacy, which is not as simple as it sounds.
It’s been a long and bumpy road for future bills, filled with delays and controversies, so let’s see how we got here and what the future of legislation holds.
Politics scene: Government accused of ‘substantially backtracking’ on bill
Although the idea first emerged in 2019, a draft proposal for an online safety bill did not emerge until May 2021, with ministers blaming COVID-19 for the delay.
However, when the measures do surface, they promise to help keep children safe and tackle abuse online.
Key to the plan is making Ofcom the new regulator for internet companies, with the power to fine them up to 10% of their global turnover if they fail to remove harmful content.
But while there is broad agreement on some of the material the bill will cover – content that is already illegal under UK law, such as child abuse images – the plan also wants companies to remove material deemed “legitimate but harmful”.
The three-word phrase, which at this point has not been defined by the government, will dominate the future of the bill.
For tech companies, the concern is that it’s not clear what they should censor, and they’re demanding more clarity.
For some Conservative MPs – including influential minister Kemi Badenoch – They worry that the rules are being crossed and that companies would rather play it safe than face threats of large fines from the government, thereby directly threatening free speech.
The then culture minister, Nadine Dorries, who led the bill, insisted the bill was “very clear” in its intent to not restrict freedom of expression, but critics remained unconvinced.
The final months of 2021 saw Parliament undertake a pre-legislative review, which was investigated and prepared by a joint committee comprising members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The legislation was formally tabled in the House of Commons in March 2022, nearly three years after the white paper was released, and includes new measures such as Criminalize web flashingto combat online scams, and to grant the right of appeal to those who believe their posts should not have been removed.
However, there is still no definition of so-called legal harm – just a promise to be made in further legislation in the future.
Instead of progressing, however, the law has been hit by delays again, this time due to trials and tribulations within the Conservative Party.
The bill was due to be tabled in the lower house at the end of July to ensure passage through the upper house before the summer recess.
Boris Johnson then announced his resignation as prime minister.
Labor is trying to force a motion to oust him as soon as possible after he insisted on staying in office until September while a leadership contest took place.
But instead it led the Conservatives to use the last parliamentary session before the summer break to call for a vote of confidence in themselves to thwart Labour’s plans and see the bill delayed once again.
With the future of the law hanging in the balance, a new leader will take over the keys to Downing Street.
But just days into her tenure as prime minister, Liz Truss told MPs it would be safe in her hands.
To the delight of critics of the bill, she said “some adjustments are needed” to ensure that “we protect children under 18 from harm”. [and] We also ensure that freedom of speech is allowed.”
The bill is due to return to the House of Commons in early November.
Instead, the government was thrown into chaos again when another prime minister announced she was leaving.
Legislation has been scrapped again, with no date given for when new prime minister Rishi Sunak will return to the bill, with children’s charities outraged, warning every delay puts more young people at risk middle.
Ms Dorris also warned that frontbenchers should prepare for “a massive battle” with female Conservative MPs if the bill was watered down, attacking her successor Michelle Doneland in the House Journal, saying She “has been in office for five minutes and doesn’t know enough about it”.
Fast forward a month and we see a new announcement from the government – the Act is back, and with some major changes.
For example, Ms Donelan outlined how companies would be forced to show how they prevent children under 13 from signing up to social media sites.
But the title returned by the bill is Abandon the “legitimate but harmful” constraints.
The new culture minister took a sharply different approach to Ms Dorris, saying the original clause “violated the right of adults to choose what they say and see legally”.
Platforms will still be required to remove illegal content — including any material that encourages self-harm, This will be banned by the government as part of the update – and any material that violates its terms of service.
But instead of their legal but harmful duty, they will have to provide adults with tools to hide certain content they don’t want to see — such as posts related to eating disorders, misogyny and other forms of abuse .
The government calls it a “triple shield” of online protection while allowing free speech.
Not everyone is happy with the change, though.
The Samaritans chief executive called it a “huge step backwards”, while Labor claimed it would “encourage abusers, COVID deniers, pranksters who will feel encouraged to thrive online”.
Even critics of the “legitimate but harmful” provisions remain cautious.
Senior Conservative David Davies said he was concerned that a provision allowing the government to order companies to inspect private information set out in the bill could “undermine end-to-end encryption” and threaten privacy and free speech.
The legislation is due to return to the House of Commons in December and the prime minister’s official spokesman said they hoped to enact it as soon as possible.
But there will be battles with backbenchers and who knows what the Lords will think. It may take some time for these suggestions to become a reality.