The UK government is scrapping controversial powers to force internet companies to take down “legal but harmful” content, following a backlash from the tech industry and free speech advocates.
The measure had been expected to form part of the long-awaited Online Safety Bill and would have represented a radical departure from existing global rules that police some of the world’s biggest technology companies, from Facebook to Google.
The move had been pushed by former home secretary Priti Patel among other former ministers, during the tenure of ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. While the new Conservative administration led by Rishi Sunak intends to press on with the legislation, it has removed the most controversial measure ahead of the bill returning to the House of Commons on December 5.
The legal but harmful provision will be replaced with new rules for companies to be more transparent over internal policies on content moderation, protections for free speech and strict laws on removing illegal content, the government announced on Monday evening.
The new legislation will still create one of the toughest online regulatory regimes in the world, giving sweeping powers to media regulator Ofcom to investigate and fine internet companies who do not comply. Tech companies and privacy advocates had led an intense lobbying campaign to convince the government to water down the legal but harmful clause.
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan, who took up the post in September, said the new bill was now “freed from any threat that tech firms or future governments could use the laws as a licence to censor legitimate views”.
Tech companies will still be expected to police harmful content to children, including bullying and pornographic content, and clarify their age verification processes.
Internet companies will still be required to publish risk assessments and remove illegal content, such as racist abuse. The platforms will also be compelled to report online child sexual abuse to the UK National Crime Agency.
Over the past week, the government has added new crimes, including banning content that encourages self-harm or suicide, as well as non-consensual images such as so-called deepfake porn, where editing software is used to make and distribute fake sexualised images or videos without their permission.
The changes come as social media platforms have cut staff due to a slowdown in the economy, raising concerns that this may impact their ability to moderate content. This month, Twitter axed more than half of its staff and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, cut 13 per cent of its headcount, while Snapchat owner Snap cut 20 per cent of its employees in September.
Government figures are hopeful that the bill will be passed into law by next spring. Some within the Conservative party have warned of political fallout if there are further delays to the legislation’s progression within parliament.
“There is no appetite within the government to quietly get rid of the bill, but there is a danger that the bill runs out of road by accident,” one former minister said. “There will be a big backlash outside of parliament and within it if we have left online safety unregulated”.