I am glad that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has confirmed that the Government will strengthen the Online Safety Bill before it is brought forward to Parliament.
As part of this, new communications offences will strengthen protections from harmful online behaviours such as deliberately sharing dangerous disinformation about hoax COVID-19 treatments.
The Government will introduce a harm-based communications offence to capture communications sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse, including when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm.
Although there is an existing offence in the Communications Act that captures knowingly false communications, I am encouraged that this new offence raises the current threshold of criminality. It covers false communications deliberately sent to inflict harm, such as hoax bomb threats, as opposed to misinformation where people are unaware what they are sending is false or genuinely believe it to be true. For example, if an individual posted on social media encouraging people to inject antiseptic to cure themselves of coronavirus, a court would have to prove that the individual knew this was not true before posting it.
As the internet becomes an increasingly integral part of our daily lives, I believe it is imperative that action is undertaken to ensure users are protected online from harmful activity and content and I therefore welcome these new measures.
In the draft version of the Online Safety Bill, the Government set out expectations on companies to keep their users safe. For example, companies will have to enforce their promises to users, remove criminal content from their sites, and protect children from harmful content, including misinformation. The biggest companies will also have duties on legal content that may cause significant physical and psychological harm, including misinformation and disinformation such as anti-vaccination content and falsehoods about COVID-19.
I would like to reassure you that work is being undertaken to ensure misinformation and disinformation is correctly defined and does not inhibit freedom of speech. Clause 98 of the draft Bill places an obligation on Ofcom, the UK’s independent communications regulator, to form an advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation. The Committee will be tasked with providing advice to Ofcom about how providers of regulated user-to-user services should deal with misinformation and disinformation on their services. Furthermore, the codes of practice, which outline the systems and processes that companies need to adopt to fulfil their duty of care will be consulted on by Ofcom, ensuring the measures are proportionate.