Will the Online Safety Bill actually protect people from abuse?

Westminster intends to legislate to protect internet users from a range of harmful content. Is its online safety bill – nearly three years in the making – fit for enactment yet?

On the evening of 11 July 2021, tens of millions of people throughout England were momentarily united in pursuit of a common goal: victory for the national football team in the Uefa Euro 2020 final. In a country whose population has so often been deeply divided in recent years, that night and the days leading up to it felt increasingly hopeful. 

This sense of optimistic fellowship turned out to be fleeting in the end. Italy beat England on penalties – and the mood quickly turned. The three English players who missed their penalties, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, also happened to be Black. They were subjected to such intense racist invective on social media that the prime minister felt obliged to publicly condemn their mistreatment. 

This highlighted a problem that Boris Johnson and his cabinet are under increasing pressure to address: online abuse and how to protect people from it. The government has made significant commitments to tackling the issue, particularly with the Online Harms white paper, published in April 2019, and the draft online safety bill (OSB) that emerged from it in May 2021. 

Once enacted, the planned law should empower communications watchdog Ofcom to fine a social media company up to £18m, or 10% of its annual turnover if that’s higher, in cases where they fail in their duty of care to users. But not all experts in the field agree that this legislation would be the most effective approach to protecting those most vulnerable to online abuse.

The government’s recently appointed minister for tech and the digital economy is Chris Philp. He says that “everyone in the UK, especially children, should be free to use the internet without being exposed to content and behaviour that would be unacceptable offline. But there is currently no accountability on tech platforms, despite their enormous wealth and resources, to keep their users safe. We see this when a footballer gets bombarded with racist abuse, or when a young girl is directed towards a suicide chatroom or pro-anorexia videos, and no one is held to account.” 

The government, he adds, believes that its planned legislation will place much-needed responsibilities on social network providers to protect users and safeguard their rights.

Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an international NGO with offices in London and Washington DC. He agrees that “the case for regulation is clear and overwhelming. This bill is one of the most ambitious attempts to hold tech companies accountable for the harms caused by their products. It’s a promising step in the right direction.” 

But Ahmed adds that the legislation could and should go even further, arguing that the OSB “needs to be strengthened in a number of key areas if it’s going to have the desired impact”. 

One glaring omission in the bill is its failure to address the disproportionate impact that forms of abuse such as hate speech have on female social media users. So says Seyi Akiwowo, the founder and CEO of Glitch, a charity that aims to protect women and marginalised people from online abuse. 

“The government must acknowledge the higher level of online abuse that women and girls receive. This is not mentioned in the current version of the OSB,” she notes. 

Akiwowo points out that women are 27% more likely to be targeted for online abuse than men. For Black women, the figure leaps to 84%. 

The government must acknowledge the higher level of online abuse that women and girls receive. This is not mentioned in the current version of the OSB

She believes that much more detail is needed in the bill – for instance, about the distinction between what online content it deems illegal and what it classes as “harmful content”. Material that falls into the latter category may still be considered legal. A failure to provide sufficient clarity here would restrict Ofcom’s ability to do its job effectively, Akiwowo argues. 

Her opinion is shared by Twitter. Katy Minshall, the social media giant’s head of public policy and philanthropy in the UK, says: “We welcome the increased focus on the safety of those who use online services. We also appreciate the designation of a qualified body such as Ofcom, as the independent regulator. But we are concerned that, in its present form, the OSB risks setting a harmful international precedent. We look forward to seeing more substantive definitions in the bill and will continue to collaborate with the government and industry to build on the work we’ve already done to make the internet a safe environment for all.” 

Akiwowo has some ideas about what aspects of the planned act should be amended. “It’s really important that the part of the OSB that talks about ‘legal and harmful content’ includes the types of abuse that women face,” she says. These include threats of rape and murder, doxxing (maliciously publishing someone’s private personal information) and deadnaming (using the former name of a transgender or non-binary person to belittle their gender identity). 

But not all experts in this field are so supportive of the OSB. One of them is Myles Jackman, a solicitor who has campaigned for the reform of UK obscenity laws, which he considers unsuitable for the digital age. He argues that the legislation, if enacted in its current form, could risk curtailing the basic human right of freedom of expression. 

A better solution, Jackman says, would be for Westminster to invest in more comprehensive social education, which would guide people away from abusing others, and to direct more public money towards the criminal justice system, which already has laws in place to protect people from abuse. 

“If you want a ‘safe mode’ internet, you need your real-world police to be funded properly,” he adds. 

Akiwowo disagrees that additional legislation and freedom of expression are mutually exclusive. “It’s dangerous when people pit preventing online abuse against preserving freedom of speech,” she says. “At the end of the day, online abuse takes away the victims’ freedoms.”

One matter on which she and Jackman do concur is that reforming existing laws to protect people from harm would be hugely beneficial. For Akiwowo, making misogyny a hate crime would be a good place to start, while Jackman would like the government to tax big tech companies properly and funnel that revenue back into the criminal justice system. 

While the OSB’s pros and cons continue to be debated, it’s clear that the bill represents a momentous shift in thinking about what constitutes harm in the eyes of the law. But it remains to be seen whether the eventual act will be able to capture all the important nuances and so protect those who suffer most from online abuse without causing problems further down the line.