You would think that five years was long enough to enact a piece of legislation, but as the government has discovered, the internet is a notoriously tricky beast to pin down.
This hasn’t stopped three successive prime ministers from trying, however. Starting in September, a fourth will now have a crack at making the UK “the safest place in the world to be online” through the Online Safety Bill, a bill that would have been law by now had it not been for the small matters of free speech, censorship, journalism, technology, privacy and pornography.
In its zeal to develop a new model for “Online Britain”, parliament has created a multi-headed legal Hydra to stand guard at our shores, insisting that nothing harmful will get past – once, that is, everyone has agreed what constitutes harm.
The desire to do everything in one package is understandable, but the time it has taken to get there has had some serious and negative downsides, especially on those most vulnerable to the internet’s unfettered access – children. While government ministers trade blows over whether the bill is simply legislating for “hurt feelings”, those who deal with the real-world impact of a loosely controlled internet are alarmed at both past and possible future delays.
“We are long overdue protections for children in the online world,” Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said in response to our query. “We need the Online Safety Bill as quickly as possible.”
The police agree. Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, who serves as the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on this issue, says time is of the essence. “The changed landscape of internet access has created significant additional demand – much of this additional demand comprises young people ‘committing offences’,” his office told us. “It is important that society realises the scale of this.”
What is that scale? The Internet Watch Foundation said in its most recent annual report that “self-generated” images taken by children themselves had jumped by 374 per cent during the pandemic, and now account for 72 per cent of the child abuse material it takes action on – over 250,000 instances a year. Of that, 70 per cent featured 11-13-year-olds.
“Some of this harmful behaviour has become normalised amongst young people, and requires diversion and education rather than a criminal justice outcome,” Critchley’s office noted.
While the adult world argues about the complexities of causing offence and what constitutes reasonable argument, the prevalence of sexual imagery and smartphones has created an entirely different world for children, one where taking and sending highly personal photos and videos, often at someone else’s instigation, can be pretty common.
The bill has also been criticised for focusing on the big tech platforms like Facebook, but cyber bullying expert and renowned researcher in this field, Adrienne Katz, says small platforms pose a bigger threat. “Children flock to them overnight,” she notes. Adult groomers also entice children to those platforms because they have fewer or no controls. She wants to see laws that require “safety by design” and which monitor “pathways” across platforms.
Online safety specialist Alan Mackenzie is keen to stress that making the internet safer can be “positive and empowering.” He notes nonetheless that it has been “incredibly frustrating” to witness repeat delays in making changes to the law that pretty much everyone agrees with.
“This should have been done a long time ago,” he notes. Most of the measures will take time to implement. Much of what is already in the Online Safety Bill won’t take effect until 2024 and every delay pushes that date out further. Of the bill itself, he says that “it’s trying to do too much; it’s six bills in one. We need to deal with the most serious stuff now – and that is around children.”
Some of those changes are big: putting a legal “duty of care” on online platforms to make them liable for failing to protect users, for example. Others are small, like adjusting legal definitions so the police can focus resources on the most serious offenders. And some changes still need to be discussed but have been left behind as the bill has grown to encompass all behaviour online.
There is a bigger problem, however. If the government pushes past critics and enacts the bill as it stands, there’s no guarantee that the solutions dreamed up in Westminster will actually work in the real world. The government found that out a few years ago when the 2017 Digital Economy Act decreed that, within two years, age verification would become a legal requirement for assessing online pornography in the UK. After several delays, it finally scrapped the plan when it became clear that neither the legal nor technological frameworks were in place. Age verification is back with this new bill.
The same risk exists with the Online Safety Bill’s strongest measures, which are new and untested. The sheer scale and size of changes that online platforms would need to make in order to fit with what are still unwritten requirements is an obvious point of failure.
Fortunately, there is a solution and it’s an obvious one. The government should stop trying to solve all the internet’s problems in one go and pass a bill that most people, including tech platforms, can agree on: legislation that focuses on the protection of children online. A “Children’s Online Safety Bill” would not only gain swift and widespread backing by focusing on a clearly defined group and cutting out complex free speech issues, it could also serve as the starting point for later regulations and system changes that can be adjusted to account for the complexities of adulthood. If the government wants to regulate the internet, it needs to at least try to keep pace with it.
[Read more: The Online Safety Bill has sparked a free speech culture war]