Britain passed a sweeping law on Tuesday to regulate online content, introducing age verification requirements for pornography sites and other rules to reduce hate speech, harassment and other illicit material.
He Online Safety Bill, which also applies to terrorist propaganda, online fraud, and child safety, is one of the most far-reaching attempts by a Western democracy to regulate online speech. The new rules, which are about 300 pages long, took more than five years to develop, triggering intense debates about how to balance freedom of expression and privacy with banning harmful content, especially aimed at children.
At one point, messaging services including WhatsApp and Signal threatened to leave the British market entirely until provisions in the bill seen as weakening encryption standards were changed.
The British law goes further than efforts elsewhere to regulate online content, forcing companies to proactively look for objectionable material and judge whether it is illegal, rather than requiring them to act only after being alerted to it. illegal content, according to Graham Smith, a London lawyer. Lawyer focused on internet law.
It is part of a wave of rules in Europe aimed at ending an era of self-regulation in which technology companies set their own policies on what content could remain up or be removed. He Digital Services Lawa European Union law, which recently began to come into force and requires companies to more aggressively monitor their platforms for illicit material.
“The Online Safety Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation,” Michelle Donelan, Britain’s technology secretary, said in a statement. “This Government is taking a huge step forward in our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.”
British political figures have been under pressure to approve the new policy as concerns grew about the mental health effects of internet and social media use among young people. Families who attributed their children’s suicides to social media were among the most aggressive bill champions.
Under the new law, content aimed at children that promotes suicide, self-harm and eating disorders must be restricted. Porn companies, social media platforms and other services will have to introduce age verification measures to prevent children from accessing porn, a change that some groups say will harm the availability of information online and undermine privacy. The Wikimedia Foundation, the operator of Wikipedia, has said that not being able to comply with the law and, as a result, may be blocked.
TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram will also be required to introduce features that allow users to choose to encounter smaller amounts of harmful content, such as eating disorders, self-harm, racism, misogyny or antisemitism.
“At its core, the bill contains a simple idea: that providers should consider the foreseeable risks their services generate and try to mitigate them, as many other industries already do,” said Lorna Woods, a professor of Internet law at the University. of Essex, who helped draft the law.
The bill has drawn criticism from tech companies, free speech activists and privacy groups who say it threatens free speech because it will incentivize companies to remove content.
Questions remain about how the law will be enforced. That responsibility falls to Ofcom, the British regulator in charge of overseeing television and telecommunications, which must now outline rules for how it will police online safety.
Companies that fail to comply will face fines of up to 18 million pounds, or about $22.3 million, a small sum for tech giants that make billions a quarter. Company executives could face criminal action for failing to provide information during Ofcom investigations, or failing to comply with rules relating to child safety and child sexual exploitation.