Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
  2. Cybersecurity
15 December 2021

What’s illegal offline must be illegal online, says Damian Collins

The scope of the Online Safety Bill must be expanded, according to the committee tasked with scrutinising its effectiveness.

By Sarah Dawood

More online behaviour should be made illegal and fall under the scope of internet safety law, says Damian Collins, chair of the joint committee on the draft Online Safety Bill.

The joint committee is made up of MPs and peers and has now published its report of recommendations following evidence from the victims of online abuse, journalists, academics, tech companies, Ofcom, whistleblowers and the government. Once it becomes law, the Online Safety Act aims to increase internet safety by tackling illegal content such as terrorist propaganda and child abuse, and “legal but harmful” content, such as cyberbullying, while protecting free speech.

Social media companies and other websites where users interact will face fines and their sites being blocked if they do not adhere to the rules, overseen by the regulator Ofcom.

The committee’s recommendations aim to strengthen the powers of the bill and call an end to the “Wild West online”, says Collins.

“What’s illegal offline should be regulated online,” he says. “For too long, Big Tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless. A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and, in some cases, even loss of life. The era of self-regulation for Big Tech has come to an end.”

Making more online behaviour illegal

The report suggests making more individual acts punishable by law, as recommended by the Law Commission earlier this year. This includes cyberflashing; content promoting self-harm; sharing content with the intent of causing physical or severe psychological harm; and knowingly promoting false content with the intent to cause harm.

It also suggests that fraud and “scam advertising” should fall under scope of the bill, while there should be an “automatic exception” for recognised news publishers to protect journalism.

Content from our partners
Insurance: finding sustainable growth in stormy markets
Why public health policy needs to refocus
The five key tech areas for the public sector in 2023

The bill needs to be more specific about particular harms, Collins tells Spotlight; it has previously been criticised for being too vague and treating all online behaviour, from bullying to misinformation, the same. The committee recommends that Ofcom draw up mandatory “codes of practice” for websites to follow in different areas, with the ability to introduce additional codes in future to ensure the legislation stays up-to-date.

“Our overall approach is making online safety based much more on existing and specific offences in law, which would also help ensure we protect freedom of expression as well,” says Collins. “The bill needs to be much clearer as to which offences are in scope, and how these will be enforced online.”

Such codes should also consider international treaty obligations, such as the Equality Act 2010 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; for instance, there should be a goal to tackle violence against women and girls.

“The regulatory system should be based on existing offences in law, but it should also draw on other obligations we’ve signed up to,” says Collins. “Apart from the worst forms of illegal content, it’s still largely being left to the companies to determine what their policies are. It needs to be clearer [exactly how] certain offences like abuse directed at women or girls [will be dealt with].”

Expanding Ofcom’s powers

Currently, Ofcom has the power to fine companies and block websites. The committee is recommending criminal prosecution for company directors who fail to comply with the new laws, and strengthening Ofcom’s power so it can access tech companies’ information and data. This would allow them to investigate and audit companies more thoroughly. “[Currently], we don’t see this [data], unless it’s leaked by whistleblowers,” says Collins.

Tech companies should also have to conduct internal risk assessments to check for threats to user safety, including the potential harmful impact of algorithms. The Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recently spoke out about the dangerous impact of the tech giant’s algorithms, which she said prioritised hateful and false content in people’s news feeds.

Transparency over anonymous accounts

Banning anonymous online accounts has been supported by pro-safety critics and rejected by pro-privacy campaigners. The committee is calling for more “traceability” over anonymous accounts that abuse others or do something illegal, says Collins, meaning tech companies have an obligation to give details of these users to the police. However, they are not recommending a ban on anonymity entirely.

“There are certain circumstances where it’s perfectly understandable that somebody wouldn’t want to post in their own name,” says Collins. “Someone who was themselves a victim of abuse and who wants to talk about their experiences, for instance. People who need anonymity to protect themselves should be able to do so, but those who use it as a shield to attack others should be identified if they break the law.”

Promoting user awareness

Websites should create a mandatory online safety policy for users to sign up to, similar to terms of condition, says Collins: “This would be a reminder of what the platform’s policies are, and [will improve transparency]. It will tell users what they should expect, what they have a right to complain about and what the law requires.”

The report also suggests creating an ombudsman to deal with people’s complaints, allowing people to bring court cases against social media companies. “This would give them another route to seek redress if they feel they’ve suffered as a consequence of the platform failing to meet their duties,” says Collins.

It is not currently known when the bill is expected to become law but a Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson previously told Spotlight the government is “committed to introducing the bill as soon as possible” following the report.

Read more about the Online Safety Bill and what it means for social media.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Topics in this article: