The UK Online Safety Bill - Championing safety by design

We reflect on the Online Safety Bill and government efforts to protect children from online pornography. This new blog post also explores why ‘safety by design’ could be the new goal post for online businesses and service providers.

The UK Online Safety Bill - Championing safety by design

With a draft version of The Online Safety Bill going through UK Parliament, we reflect on the proposed follow up to the Digital Economy Act 2017, industry and government efforts to protect children from online pornography and why ‘safety by design’ could be the new buzz phrase for online businesses and service providers.

What is the Online Safety Bill?

The Online Safety Bill is a proposed Act of the UK Parliament intended to improve internet safety. Published as a draft on 12 May 2021, two years after the Government released its Online Harms White Paper, the Online Safety Bill sets out a regulatory framework for UK tech firms and aims to identify and remove illegal and harmful content from the internet. The draft bill can be found here on the website.

Online Harms Bill - The catalyst for change

With the rise in illegal and harmful content appearing online, it was clear that the UK’s digital economy needed a robust regulatory framework to improve online safety. The Online Harms Bill was the beginning of a nationwide initiative, fuelled by the growth in internet accessibility and public concern around online harms & cyberbullying. Leading the charge to “make Britain the safest place in the world to be online”, the UK Government published the Online Harms White Paper, the first major step in the battle against illegal activity online.

What type of businesses will be affected by the Online Safety Bill?

Businesses that provide user-to-user services, allow user-generated content or provide search services will be the most affected. Think, social media sites, video-sharing platforms and the like.

Online Safety Bill – safety duties

These companies will be subject to a series of new “safety duties” that aim to minimise the presence of harmful material on their platforms, as well as the time it takes for such content to be removed. When published, the Online Safety Bill will require businesses to assess the likelihood of children accessing their services, and if so, task them with providing additional protections e.g. age verification software.

When will the Online Safety Bill become UK law?

While it is not clear how long it will take the Online Safety Bill to become law, there is strong support from the top. It was the first of its kind to be published following the Queen’s Speech in May, which expressed a commitment to ensuring internet safety for children. The next steps for the draft bill include pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of Members of the House of Commons and peers from the House of Lords. This means that it could enter Parliament after summer 2021. Once in Parliament, the next stage of scrutiny will begin, which can several years to complete.

An emphasis on ‘safety by design’

On 29 June, the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published several guides to help tech businesses better protect users online. This ‘one stop shop’ for online child safety includes guidance on data protection, privacy and protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse, to managing risk on platforms that allow user-generated content, search and access to live streams. There is a clear emphasis here on safety by design, encouraging tech businesses to know who their users are, protect them and usher in the new Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC).

What is the Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC)?

Due to come into force on 2nd September this year, and possibly the first tangible by-product of the European Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), the AADC will champion the safety of products and online services from development right through to user experience. The AADC sets out 15 standards for online services that process personal data and are likely to be accessed by children in the UK. With a keen focus on ‘age appropriate application’ and recognising the age of individual users, the AADC emphasises the need for age verification software as an effective measure to safeguard children.

The risk of non-compliance

The draft version of the Online Safety Bill clearly sets out the possible financial and criminal penalties for services that do not comply. OFCOM, the media and communications regulator, will have the power to fine companies up to 10% of their “qualifying worldwide revenue” or £18 million (whichever is higher). There are also possible criminal offences for individuals and senior managers, although the Government intends to hold these in reserve.

Staying one step ahead of the regulatory curve

Online safety has transitioned from a discussion around protection from the digital world to protection within it. Both the Online Safety Bill & AADC are designed to allow children to navigate online spaces and safeguard them from mental or physical harm.

VerifyMyAge age verification solution

As a business, we are always advising our clients on how to implement solutions that both meet their needs and regulatory requirements. Our age verification solution enables frictionless user journeys to your content and services while avoiding the reputational damage and financial penalties imposed by regulators.

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