Online Safety Bill

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The Online Safety Bill is a proposed Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom intended to improve internet safety, published as a draft on 12 May 2021.[1] Following the earlier 2019 Online Harms White Paper, the Bill gives the relevant Secretary of State the power, subject to Parliamentary approval, to designate and address a wide range of potentially harmful content, which may include online trolling, illegal pornography and underage access to legal pornography, and some forms of internet fraud.

The Bill would create a new duty of care for online platforms towards their users, requiring them to take action against both illegal and legal but harmful content. Platforms failing this duty would be liable to fines of up to £18 million or 10% of their annual turnover, whichever is higher. It would also empower Ofcom to block access to particular websites. Additionally, the Bill would oblige large social media platforms not to remove, and to preserve access to, journalistic or "democratically important" content such as user comments on political parties and issues.

The bill has been heavily criticised for its proposals to restrain the publication of "lawful but harmful" speech, effectively creating a new form of censorship of otherwise legal speech.[2][3][4] As a result, in November 2022, measures that were intended to force big technology platforms to take down "legal but harmful" materials were removed from the Online Safety Bill. Instead, tech platforms will be obliged to introduce systems that will allow the users to better filter out the harmful content they don't want to see.[5][6]



Within the scope of the Bill is any "user-to-user service". This is defined as an internet service by means of which content that is generated by a user of the service, or uploaded to or shared on the service by a user of the service, may be read, viewed, heard or otherwise experienced ("encountered") by another user, or other users. Content includes written material or messages, oral communications, photographs, videos, visual images, music and data of any description.[1]

The duty of care applies globally to services with a significant number of United Kingdom users, or which target UK users, or those which are capable of being used in the United Kingdom where there are reasonable grounds to believe that there is a material risk of significant harm.[1]


The Duty of Care refers to a number of specific duties to all services within scope:[1]

  • The illegal content risk assessment duty  
  • The illegal content duties
  • The duty about rights to freedom of expression and privacy
  • The duties about reporting and redress
  • The record-keeping and review duties

For services 'likely to be accessed by children', adopting the same scope as the Age Appropriate Design Code, two additional duties are imposed:[1]

  • The children's risk assessment duties
  • The duties to protect children’s online safety

For Category 1 services, which will be defined in secondary legislation but are limited to the largest global platforms, there are four further new duties:[1]

  • The adults' risk assessment duties
  • The duties to protect adults’ online safety
  • The duties to protect content of democratic importance
  • The duties to protect journalistic content


The Bill would empower Ofcom, the national communications regulator, to block access to particular user-to-user services or search engines from the United Kingdom,[7][8][9] including through interventions by internet access providers and app stores. The regulator will also be able to impose, through "service restriction orders", requirements on ancillary services which facilitate the provision of the regulated services. The Bill lists in Section 92 as examples (i) services which enable funds to be transferred, (ii) search engines which generate search results displaying or promoting content and (iii) services which facilitate the display of advertising on a regulated service (for example, an ad server or an ad network). Ofcom must apply to a court for both Access Restriction and Service Restriction Orders.[1]


The Bill seeks to protect freedom of speech by imposing a legal requirement to ensure that content moderation does not arbitrarily remove or infringe access to journalistic content.[7] Large social networks would be required to protect "democratically important" content, such as user-submitted posts supporting or opposing particular political parties or policies.[10] The government stated that news publishers' own websites, as well as reader comments on such websites, are not within the intended scope of the law.[7][9]

Age verification for online pornography[edit]

Clause 131 of the draft bill would repeal part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017,[1] which demands mandatory age verification to access online pornography but was subsequently not enforced by the government.[11] The draft bill will include within scope any pornographic site which has functionality to allow for user-to-user services, but those which do not have this functionality, or choose to remove it, would not be in scope based on the draft published by the government.[1]

Addressing the House of Commons DCMS Select Committee, the Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, confirmed he would be happy to consider a proposal during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament to extend the scope of the Bill to all commercial pornographic websites.[12] The draft Bill addresses the major concern expressed by campaigners such as the Open Rights Group[13] about the risk to user privacy with the Digital Economy Act's[14] requirement for age verification by creating, on services within scope of the legislation, "A duty to have regard to the importance of... protecting users from unwarranted infringements of privacy, when deciding on, and implementing, safety policies and procedures."[1]

In February 2022 the Digital Economy Minister, Chris Philp, announced that the bill would be amended to bring commercial pornographic websites within its scope.[15]

Legislative process and timetable[edit]

The draft bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of Members of the House of Commons and peers from the House of Lords. The Opposition Spokesperson, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, in the House of Lords speculated at the timetable: "My understanding is that we now have a timeline for the online harms Bill, with pre-legislative scrutiny expected immediately after the Queen’s Speech—before the Summer Recess—and that Second Reading would be expected after the Summer Recess."[16] But the Minister replying refused to pre-empt the Queen's Speech by confirming this.

In early February 2022, ministers planned to add to their existing proposal several criminal offences against those who send death threats online or deliberately share dangerous disinformation about fake Covid cures. Other new offences, such as revenge porn, posts advertising people-smuggling, and messages encouraging people to commit suicide, would fall under the responsibilities of online platforms like Facebook and Twitter to tackle.[17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Draft Online Safety Bill" (PDF). 12 May 2021. Retrieved 15 May 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ "Tech firms could face fines over harmful content in government's new online safety bill". Sky News. Retrieved 18 May 2021.
  3. ^ "Online safety bill 'a recipe for censorship', say campaigners". The Guardian. 12 May 2021. Retrieved 18 May 2021.
  4. ^ Landi, Martyn (13 May 2021). "Online Safety Bill labelled 'state-backed censorship' by campaigners". Retrieved 18 May 2021.
  5. ^ "Online Safety Bill: Plan to make big tech remove harmful content axed". BBC News. Retrieved 29 November 2022.
  6. ^ Sandle, Paul (29 November 2022). "UK ditches ban on 'legal but harmful' online content in favour of free speech". Reuters. Retrieved 29 November 2022.
  7. ^ a b c Lomas, Natasha (12 May 2021). "UK publishes draft Online Safety Bill". TechCrunch. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  8. ^ "Tech firms could face fines over harmful content in government's new online safety bill". Sky News. 12 May 2021. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  9. ^ a b Wakefield, Jane (12 May 2021). "Government lays out plans to protect users online". BBC News. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  10. ^ Hern, Alex (12 May 2021). "Online safety bill 'a recipe for censorship', say campaigners". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  11. ^ Grant, Harriet (5 May 2021). "UK government faces action over lack of age checks on adult sites". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 May 2021.
  12. ^ "Oral evidence transcripts". UK Parliament: Committees.
  13. ^ "Digital Economy Bill Could Lead to Ashley Madison Style Data Breaches". Open Rights Group. 13 September 2016. Retrieved 15 May 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. ^ "Digital Economy Act 2017 Part 3". 12 May 2021. Retrieved 15 May 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  15. ^ Milmo, Dan; Waterson, Jim (8 February 2022). "Porn sites in UK will have to check ages in planned update to online safety bill". The Guardian.
  16. ^ "Domestic Abuse Bill - Wednesday 17 March 2021 - Hansard - UK Parliament". Retrieved 15 May 2021.
  17. ^ Knowles, Tom; Dathan, Matt (5 February 2022). "Trolls could be jailed for online threats". The Times.

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