The UK government is putting forward changes to the law which would require social media platforms to give users the option to avoid seeing and engaging with harmful — but legal — content.
Presenting the amended Online Safety Bill to Parliament this week, Michelle Donelan, the minister for digital, culture, media and sport pledged to create a “third shield” to protect users from harmful content. She promised the mechanism, to be built by platform providers if the bill makes it into law, “transfers power away from Silicon Valley algorithms to ordinary people.”
“Our new triple-shield mechanism puts accountability, transparency and choice at the heart of the way we interact with each other online. If [the content] is illegal, it has to go. If it violates a company’s terms and conditions, it has to go. Under the third and final layer of the triple-shield, platforms must offer users tools to allow them to choose what kind of content they want to see and engage with,” Donelan told Parliament.
In notes published along with the Bill, the government promised to tackle anonymous abuse by social media platform users by giving users the option to verify their identity, and tools to have more control over the legal content that they see and who they interact with – such as excluding interactions with unverified users.
The legislation has been on a long journey. First proposed in April last year, a driving factor behind it was politicians’ outrage at the ease at which children could access harmful and pornographic content. Legislators toyed with the idea of enforcing age-verification on viewing such content, before privacy concerns saw that concept ditched.
The idea of preventing children from seeing nefarious content has not gone altogether though, especially since the tragic death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who died in 2017 following “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”, according to an inquest.
Rather than strict ID-base age-verification, platform providers would be forced to publish data revealing the risk of children viewing such content on their systems.
Donelan told Parliament: “Platforms will still have to shield children and young people from both illegal content and a whole range of other harmful content, including pornography, violent content and so on. However, they will also face new duties on age limits. No longer will social media companies be able to claim to ban users under 13 while quietly turning a blind eye to the estimated 1.6 million children who use their sites under age. They will also need to publish summaries of their risk assessments relating to illegal content and child safety in order to ensure that there is greater transparency for parents, and to ensure that the voice of children is injected directly into the Bill, Ofcom will consult the Children’s Commissioner in the development of codes of practice.”
However, Lucy Powell, shadow minister for digital, culture, media and sport, said: “Simply holding platforms to account for their own terms and conditions – the Secretary of State referred to that earlier – which, as we saw just this week at Twitter, can be rewritten or changed at whim, will not constitute robust enough regulation to deal with the threat that these platforms present.
“To protect children, the government are relying on age verification, but as those with teenage children are well aware – including many of us in the House – most of them pass themselves off as older than they are, and verification is easy to get around. The proposed three shields for adults are just not workable and do not hold up to scrutiny. Let us be clear that the raft of new amendments that have been tabled by the government this week are nothing more than a major weakening and narrowing of this long-awaited legislation,” Powell said.
The legislation is yet to face the committee stage in the Commons before heading to the House of Lords. If it is not passed by April next year — when the current Parliamentary session ends — it could be dropped entirely, forcing the government to start the process again, if it has the will. ®