Internet safety reforms clear first Commons hurdle as MPs give their backing
Proposals for new internet safety laws have cleared their first Commons hurdle, amid calls for ministers to tighten up the measures to combat online hate.
MPs gave the Online Safety Bill an unopposed second reading and it will undergo further scrutiny at a later stage, with amendments tabled for consideration.
The legislation is expected to force the biggest operators, such as Meta – formerly Facebook – and Google, to abide by a duty of care to users, overseen by Ofcom as the new regulator for the sector.
Companies that fail to comply with the laws could be fined up to 10% of their annual global turnover and will also be forced to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites.
The Bill will require pornography websites to use age verification technology to stop children from accessing the material on their sites, and there will be a duty for the largest social media platforms and search engines to prevent fraudulent advertising.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries told the Commons: “This Bill has our children’s future, that unhindered development and their wellbeing at its very heart, whilst at the same time providing enhanced protections for freedom of speech.”
She said the Government will not “allow the web to be a hiding place or a safe space for criminals” and the Bill will “force the largest social media platforms to enforce their own bans on racism, misogyny, antisemitism and all sorts of unacceptable behaviour that they claim not to allow but that ruins life in practice”.
She said if platforms “fail in any of those basic responsibilities, Ofcom will be empowered to pursue a range of actions against them, depending on the situation, and if necessary bring down the full weight of the law upon them”.
Ms Dorries also told the Commons not only the metaverse is included in the Bill but “moving forward, the provisions that are put in the Bill will allow us to move swiftly to deal with metaverse and others”.
For Labour, shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said social media has become a “hotbed for hate” and welcomed steps to tackle anonymous abuse.
But she added: “We still don’t know what the Government will designate as ‘legal but harmful’, which makes it very difficult to assess whether this Bill goes far enough or indeed too far.
“I worry that these definitions are left entirely to the secretary of state to define as well.
“A particularly prevalent and pernicious form of online hate is misogyny but violence against women and girls is not mentioned at all in the Bill, a serious oversight.
“Which platforms will be regulated by this Bill is also arbitrary and flawed. Only the largest platforms will be required to tackle harmful content, yet smaller platforms – which can still have a significant user base who are highly motivated, well organised and particularly harmful – won’t.
“Ofcom should regulate based on risk, not just size.”
Ms Powell said social media platforms are “adapting their business models to avoid regulation”, adding: “There is a real danger that when the Bill finally does come into effect, it will already be out of date; a duty of care approach focused on outcomes rather than content would create a much more dynamic system of regulation able to adapt to new technologies and platforms.”
Conservative former minister Andrew Percy was among several MPs to stress the need for the Bill to tackle smaller platforms rather than simply focus on the bigger ones.
He said: “These small platforms are a haven for white supremacists, for incels, for conspiracy theorists, for antisemites. It’s where they gather, it’s where they converse, it’s where they share and spew their hate.”
He added: “At present, despite the many advantages and measures in this Bill I support, these sites will be sifted by Ofcom into two major categories based on their size and functionality.”
Mr Percy said he hoped the Government “will consider a small amendment to this Bill to enable Ofcom powers to draw these small but high-harm platforms, based on its assessments, so-called super complaints… into that category one status, that would add a regulatory oversight and burden on those platforms.”Published: by Radio NewsHub