Online Safety Bill is watered-down – but should it really legislate for ‘hurt feelings’?

Social media demon: it seems the new Online Safety Bill won’t protect anybody from abusive other users. So what good will it do?

Parts of a planned law to protect people using the Internet from seeing illegal material have been watered down – to protect free speech, it seems.

The government has removed a section of the Online Safety Bill that refers to “legal but harmful material”.

This means the largest, high-risk online platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, that would have been tasked with preventing adults from being exposed to content like self-harm, eating disorder and misogynistic posts will no longer have to.

Children will still be protected from such material, if the Bill is passed into law as planned before Parliament dissolves for the summer recess next year.

The change has been prompted by critics like Tory Kemi Badenoch who said the section on legal but harmful material was “legislating for hurt feelings” by demanding a crackdown on free speech.

In July, nine senior Conservatives, including former ministers Lord Frost, David Davis and Steve Baker, who has since returned to the government, wrote a letter to then Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, saying provision could be used to clamp down on free speech by a future Labour government.

Mr Davis has gone on to urge the government to axe other measures that could “undermine end-to-end encryption” that he said we all rely on to keep safe online.

He said measures permitting the government to direct firms to use technology to examine private messages were a threat to privacy and freedom of expression.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said the revised Bill still offers “a triple shield of protection – so it’s certainly not weaker in any sense”.

This requires platforms to:

  • remove illegal content
  • remove material that violates their terms and conditions
  • give users controls to help them avoid seeing certain types of content to be specified by the bill

This could include content promoting eating disorders or inciting hate on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender reassignment- although there will be exemptions to allow legitimate debate.

But Labour’s Lucy Powell said removing obligations over “legal but harmful” material gives a “free pass to abusers and takes the public for a ride”.

This Writer tends to agree – to a certain extent.

It seems the changes mean users would be able to control what they see, rather than tech companies being given active duties to tackle “bad actors and dangerous content”.

So – it seems to me – abusers will still have carte blanche to use social media platforms to attack anybody they like, with the onus on the abused to put measures in place to stop themselves seeing such material.

Won’t that mean other users – on platforms like Twitter, for example – will still be able to see the abusive material and form their own conclusions about the people for whom it is intended?

The problem is partially that the UK’s legal system simply doesn’t understand how online abuse works. I tried to explain it to a High Court judge in July but her recent judgment shows that my words flew over her head.

Either she did not understand how abusive techniques are employed on social media platforms, or she didn’t care. That’s how it seemed to me.

We need legislation to prevent online abuse and harassment by criminalising the abusers – or we risk huge harm, both psychological and physical – being inflicted on our children, in spite of what this Bill pretends to be.

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