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The final draft of legislation aimed at protecting people online from “harmful content” is set to be debated in Parliament today, but critics fear that it will certainly have unexpected bad consequences.
The final draft of the UK government’s long-awaited legislation to safeguard people online from “harmful” content is being submitted to Parliament today.The Online Safety Bill places a heavy burden on technology companies to identify and remove anything deemed damaging – but not necessarily illegal – or face severe penalties. Critics argue that the Act is well-intentioned yet ambiguous, and that it is likely to have unanticipated negative implications.In a statement, UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries claimed that tech companies “haven’t been held accountable when hurt, abuse, and criminal behavior have run amok on their platforms.” However, it is unclear how the government would determine what is and is not “damaging,” as well as how technology businesses will respond.
What is the proposal in the final draft?
The legislation covers a wide range of topics. Individuals will face new criminal charges aimed at “cyberflashing” – sending unwanted graphic photographs – and internet abuse.
Twitter, Google, Facebook, and TikTok, for example, will be given a slew of new obligations. They must review any advertisements that appear on their platforms to ensure that they are not scams, and those that allow explicit content must verify the age of users to guarantee that they are not minors.
Online sites will now be required to delete “harmful content” on a proactive basis — the specifics of what this entails are unclear, but the declaration today highlighted “self-harm, harassment, and eating disorders” as examples.
In February, a draft of the bill stated that “illegal search phrases” would be prohibited. When New Scientist inquired about what would be included in the list of illegal searches, the company was told that no such list existed at the time, and that “businesses will need to build and operate their services to be safe by design and prevent customers accessing illegal content.” Individual platforms would be responsible for developing their own systems and methods to protect their users from illicit information.”
The measure also offers regulators and watchdogs more ability to probe security breaches: a new criminal offense will be added to prevent employees of companies covered by the law from altering with data before passing it over, as well as another for halting or impeding data transfers.
Is it going to be successful?
The legislation is being suggested with good intentions, but the devil is in the details, according to Alan Woodward of the University of Surrey in the UK. “When trying to define ‘damage,’ the first challenge arises,” he continues. “It can be difficult to tell the difference between injury and free expression. Some kind of subjective evaluation isn’t going to provide the level of assurance that a technology company needs if they’re going to be held responsible for allowing such information.”
He also points out that tech-savvy kids will be able to circumvent age verification and user identity protections by using VPNs, the Tor browser, and other methods.There are also concerns that the bill may encourage technology businesses to be more cautious when it comes to developing new products.
When will it be enacted into law?
The bill will be presented to Parliament on March 17th, but it must be passed by both chambers and obtain royal approval before becoming an act and becoming legally obligatory. This procedure could take months or even years, and there will almost certainly be adjustments along the way.
What do tech corporations think about it?
Anything that increases the burden of accountability and adds new dangers for negligence will irritate tech companies, and global companies are unlikely to be delighted with the idea of having to develop new tools and procedures just for the UK market.Google and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment, while Twitter’s Katy Minshall stated that “a one-size-fits-all approach” is not appropriate.