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Controversial Online Safety Bill approved by House of Lords

online safety bill House of Lords
Image credit: Sven Hansche / Shutterstock

The polarising Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation granting Ofcom greater authority to scrutinise online content, has been approved by the House of Lords more than a year after it was first introduced in Parliament.

The Lords approved the latest amendments today, leaving Royal Assent – the process in which the ruling monarch signs off on new laws – as the final step left before the bill becomes law.

The Online Safety Bill will make Ofcom responsible for holding digital content and communication hosts, such as Meta, Twitter, Apple and Google, to account for allowing potentially harmful actions including hate speech and references to self-harm.

The bill will also crack down on illegal pornography, internet scams, terrorist activity and other criminal actions that take place online.

The media watchdog will gain powers to punish online platforms with hefty fines for allowing violations of the bill on their platforms.

Julie Dawson, chief policy and regulatory officer at digital ID company Yoti, described the bill as “the start of a new chapter in online safety”.

Dawson added that the bill is “not about excluding children from the internet; it’s about giving them an experience appropriate for their age. The technology now exists to make this a reality”.

Online Safety Bill’s bumpy road to House of Lords

The landmark piece of legislation has been surrounded by controversy and criticism since its introduction.

Among the primary areas of concern was a clause giving Ofcom powers to order platforms to scan for and take down child sexual abuse material in end-to-end encrypted messages.

Experts had repeatedly said it was not technically possible to do this without undermining privacy for everyone.

Executives from platforms including WhatsApp and Signal, among others, jointly urged the UK government to include protection of encryption in the bill.

Earlier this month, ministers conceded that it is not “technically feasible” to scan encrypted messages for explicit child abuse material without undermining privacy.

Antony Walker, deputy CEO of techUK, told UKTN: “We are concerned about Ofcom’s ability to mandate technologies, including encryption-breaking measures, as this threatens privacy and security. This sets a dangerous precedent that would require further revisions to the Bill to safeguard these critical aspects.”

Other critics have pointed to potential violations of freedom of speech as part of the bill’s goal of targeting what is deemed harmful content that is otherwise legal.