Often a force for good, the internet can also be misused; we cannot ignore the very real harms people face online every day. The Queen’s Speech included the Online Safety Bill which will introduce ground-breaking laws to protect children online and tackle the worst abuses on social media, including racist hate crimes.
Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries has also prioritised additional illegal offences to be written on the face of the Bill. This removes the need for them to be set out in secondary legislation, allowing faster enforcement action against tech firms which fail to remove the named illegal content. These offences include but are not limited to: revenge porn; hate crime; fraud; weapons offences; the promotion or facilitation of suicide; people smuggling; and incitement to and threats of violence.
A recent strengthening of the proposed legislation will mean that firms must remove harmful content that has been reported to them and must prevent people being exposed to it in the first place. Ofcom, the UK’s independent communications regulator, will oversee the regulatory regime, backed up by mandatory reporting requirements and strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance. These powers include issuing fines of up to ten per cent of annual worldwide turnover to non-compliant sites or blocking them from being accessible in the UK.
I know that the Government has acted on recommendations set out by the Law Commission in its report on harmful online communications. New provisions include the introduction of a harm-based communications offence and an offence for when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to inflict harm. Furthermore, I welcome the decision to create a new cyberflashing offence with perpetrators facing up to two years behind bars. I understand that the Government is also considering the report’s recommendations on specific offences relating to epilepsy trolling.
More broadly, I am encouraged that this Bill delivers on the manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online by improving protections for users, especially children, whilst protecting freedom of expression.
Protecting children online from age-inappropriate content can be best achieved through the wider online harms proposals. All sites that publish pornography will be legally required to use a proportionate range of tools, including age assurance and age verification technologies, to ensure their users are 18 years old or over. This will allow a consistent and comprehensive approach to harmful content across different sites and will go further than the Digital Economy Act’s focus on online pornography on commercial adult sites.
Finally, I share the concerns raised about the deliberate targeting of epilepsy sufferers online. I want to reassure you that the targeting of epilepsy sufferers online already constitutes a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Furthermore, as part of the Online Safety Bill, the new duty of care will ensure companies have robust systems and processes in place to tackle illegal content on their services, including tackling online abuse which provokes epilepsy seizures. The Government is considering the Law Commission’s recommendations for specific offences to be created including epilepsy trolling and I will follow developments closely.