The Online Safety Bill UK: Time delayed means time to engage
It has now been roughly two months since the Online Safety Bill was last in the House of Commons. The 28th of June saw the conclusion of the Public Bill Committee’s line-by-line examination of the legislation that former Minister for Tech Chris Philp described as “groundbreaking and world-leading”.
Before the Bill could progress however, British politics fell into (further) crisis, triggered by a no confidence vote in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Making room for the vote in the parliamentary schedule effectively sent the Bill into a political waiting room – delayed indefinitely – and still yet to return. Official confirmation that the Bill will return to the legislative calendar in the autumn depends on the whim of incumbent PM Liz Truss’s new government priorities.
For the world of online safety, such legislative delay has divided opinion. On the one hand, children’s rights groups have warned that vital measures within the bill to protect children from threats such as child sexual and criminal exploitation online leave younger internet users at risk in the absence of much-needed regulations. During the legislation’s delay, Ofcom remains without the powers to hold online platforms to account of measures including preventing fraudulent advertising, preventing children from accessing pornographic content, and halting the distribution of illegal content like terrorist material and hate crime.
On the other hand, some free speech campaigners have welcomed the delay as an “opportunity for a rethink”, arguing that the Bill is too far-reaching and might lead to censorship rather than regulation. Former MP Ruth Smeeth – now chief executive of the free speech campaign group Index on Censorship – went as far as to say that the Bill “takes away the British public’s free speech rights”. Such critics argue that the Bill would hand over huge amounts of control to the likes of Facebook and YouTube to determine what can be said online, able unilaterally to clamp down on content they determine out of line with their impression of an online safety ideal.
Reactions to the Bill’s delay reveal an intrinsic divide over where the new legislation will steer the online regime, as it stands. The return of the Bill to Parliament in Report Stage will consequently be a crucial arena of further debate and further amendments, as the new government seeks to reach consensus on what the Bill should look like.
For businesses, this division and the broader delay represent an opportunity. Consultation is an integral part of all government decisions, but rarely more so than in the context of a fledgling government – and most likely a new Digital ministerial team – which will welcome input from trusted stakeholders in the online safety space and are more likely to be susceptible to guidance than a team with longstanding commitments and agendas.
Capitalising on this opportunity requires first being seen as a thought leader, both within industry and in the minds of parliamentarians. Politics is a crowded room; being seen as the voice rather than a voice can often open a door that might otherwise be closed. When industry and Parliament are as divided as both are over the future online safety regime, parliamentarians on either side will be looking for authoritative lines on which to hook their amendments or arguments that they table.
Doing so requires being proactive, not reactive, in engaging with the legislative process, regardless of how long the Bill remains on hold now that Parliament has returned from summer recess. Engaging early and strategically with the Bill’s remaining process offers the best chance to ensure the eventual legislation works equally for business and for consumers, while limiting the onerous and unnecessary red tape that can often accompany new regulatory regimes.
EU Digital Markets Act
For those organisations that operate across the Channel, the advent of the European Union’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act provides further cause to challenge (and, if needed, change) the development of the UK’s online legislation. In the aftermath of Brexit, ensuring that the UK’s and the EU’s online regime work symbiotically will be integral to the smooth running of a policy field that is characteristically resistant to borders.
At the same time, organisations will need to be astute in following the legislation’s progression, both to keep pace with a rapidly evolving and expanding policy arena, and – for those businesses built around e-commerce and online media – that their reputations are effectively managed in the likely fallout and challenges that will inevitably arise in a complicated, fast-moving, and ever-evolving regime.
Whitehouse Communications has been at the heart of evolving digital policy and online regulation, working for decades with businesses, politicians and policymakers across the UK and its devolved administrations and with the European Union. The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients who seek to engage on digital, media and policy with policymakers in the EU institutions, but also with the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information on how to get your voice heard in this debate, please contact Dr Andrew Tarrant (Andrew.email@example.com).
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