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You may have heard about the Online Safety Bill – and if you haven’t, it’s likely you soon will!
The Online Safety Bill marks one of the biggest planned changes to date in the way online tech companies are held responsible for content that appears on their platforms. It’s specifically aimed at companies that host ‘user-generated content’ (meaning those which allow users to post their own content online) and search engines. That’s companies like Facebook, YouTube and Google.
With 225 pages full of clauses and legal speak, the Online Safety Bill is not an easy (or fun!) read for most. That’s why we’ve created this guide to the Online Safety Bill, alongside some tips on how we can all work together to make children and young people safer online.
What Is the Online Safety Bill?
The Online Safety Bill is a piece of legislation that aims to reduce or prevent damage and harm coming to people when they are using the internet.
It aims to make the internet safer for all users, including children, and creates new laws around issues such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, scams and protecting children from pornography.
The Bill applies to any company that hosts user-generated content (such as images, comments and videos) and sites that allow UK users to talk with other people online (through comments or messages, like on forums). This means it will apply to sites such as:
Social media platforms
Forums and messaging apps
Some online games
Cloud storage sites
It was originally called the Online Harms Bill and originated from the Online Harms White Paper, a U.K. government document outlining plans to become a world-leader when it comes to keeping users safe online.
Since then, the Bill has gone through many changes and iterations. As it continues to move through the parliamentary process of becoming law, there have been many additions to what the Bill should cover. For example, in March 2022, the criminalisation of cyberflashing and the addition of robust age verification measures for sites that host or publish pornography were both added to the Bill.
If it becomes law, Ofcom will oversee the implementation and ongoing adherence to the Bill. Companies that don’t comply with the new laws could face punishment, such as fines of up to 10% of their annual global turnover or having their site blocked completely.
Individuals can also be punished; company executives who fail to cooperate with Ofcom’s requests would face prosecution or jail time.
“A Bill is a proposal for a new law, or a proposal to change an existing law that is presented for debate before Parliament. Bills are introduced in either the House of Commons or House of Lords for examination, discussion and amendment. When both Houses have agreed on the content of a Bill, it is then presented to the reigning monarch for approval (known as Royal Assent). Once Royal Assent is given, a Bill becomes an Act of Parliament and is law.”
As of the date of publication of this article, the Bill is currently in the House of Commons. After completing this stage, it will move to the House of Lords then go on to the final stages where it will be ratified into law. There are still opportunities for changes, objections, and amendments during this process.
The Online Safety Bill covers two main areas related to two different groups of people: content that is harmful to adults and provisions to protect children. For this article, we’re focusing on the latter.
Any platform that is likely to be accessed by children will now have a duty of care towards children and young people. That means they must take steps to protect them from accessing content that is illegal and harmful.
However, the Bill doesn’t just focus on cracking down on illegal content – it also covers content that’s ‘legal but harmful’. This is likely to include:
Some have been critical of this, as what’s defined as harmful can be subjective. Some content which may be viewed as harmful may be helpful to some individuals – for example self-harming content may be used by some young people to prevent them from engaging in the act.
Platforms will have to assess the threats to the safety of children. If risks are identified, they are legally required to act.
The Bill will also mean that if harmful content is seen, it must be easy to report. Platforms will also have a duty to report child sexual exploitation and abuse content to the National Crime Agency.
Other areas covered by the Bill include:
Paid-for scam adverts. This will require social media platforms and search engines to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts appearing on their servers.
Anonymous Trolls. Companies must offer ways for users to verify their identities and control who may interact with them.
Cyberflashing. Sending unsolicited sexual images to others online will be criminalised in England and Wales via this bill.
Racist content. Any racist content, whether words, emojis, images or videos, must be responded to quickly and sites will need to put systems in place to stop their services being used to spread any form of hatred and abuse.
This list is not exhaustive and, as the Bill has not been passed yet, there is still scope for more offences and obligations to be added before it comes into law. However, this guide to the Online Safety Bill highlights some of the most important and relevant aspects of the Bill when it comes to safeguarding children online.
What’s Been the Response to The Online Safety Bill?
The Online Safety Bill has faced criticisms, with some saying it goes too far and others believing it doesn’t go far enough. Groups such as the Big Brother Watch and the Open Rights Group have warned that the Bill could remove protections for private citizens and even put children at risk because of issues around the use of end-to-end encryption.
Other organisations, such as The Samaritans, think the Bill doesn’t do enough to ensure protections from suicideand self-harmrelated content and that this type of content will only be moved to less prolific sites.The NSPCC has said the Bill falls short of what is needed to protect young people and has doubts over areas such as the effectiveness of the child abuse response, weaknesses in proposed child safety duties and the strength of enforcement measures.
Does the Online Safety Bill Change What I Need to Do?
Unless you’re running a tech company, most likely not. The whole point of the Online Safety Bill is that the onus is on the tech companies themselves to ‘step up to the safeguarding plate’ and make changes – or face the consequences.
For safeguarding professionals, legal duties will remain the same – the Bill doesn’t remove responsibilities or mean safeguarding children online is put into the hands of the tech companies instead. Just as a whole-school approach should be taken when it comes to safeguarding, the Bill would in theory become part of the ecosystem; everyone must engage with the process and carry out their role in keeping children and young people safer online.
Before the Act, Take Action!
When it comes to online safety, we all have a part to play. Although the Bill will mean the platforms and apps must take more responsibility when it comes to keeping children and young people safe, as parents and carers, teachers and safeguarding professionals, we can all do our bit to ensure a safer online world.
Here’s the top things you can do right now, without having to wait for a new Act of Parliament!
Tips for Everyone
Learn about Blocking and Reporting
Just as you might talk to a child or young person about what to do if someone says something hurtful ‘offline’, talk through what you’d do if this happens online.
Knowing how (and when) to block someone and report a comment or profile is key knowledge for anyone spending time online. It’s unfortunately rare to use the digital world and not come across something upsetting or someone behaving inappropriately.
Visit our Safety Centre together to learn how to block and report on popular apps and platforms.
Get Scam Aware
This applies to everyone! Scammers are always updating their tactics and approaches. For example, during the pandemic there was a surge of scams surrounding test results, buying Covid tests and fines for breaking lockdown rules.
It’s important to stay up-to-date and educated on the latest scams going around. Remember that some scams can be sophisticated, drawn-out and very involved – it isn’t just badly written emails anymore.
You can learn more about how to protect yourself from scams and find out about the latest and most common scams through Scamwise NI.
Talk to the child or young person in your care about the importance of cyber security. Anyone can be vulnerable to becoming a victim of online criminals but there are steps we can take to keep ourselves protected.
Although this may traditionally seem like an issue that’s more relevant for adults, think of all the information that’s stored across your child or young person’s accounts. There’s your bank account information from buying games, right through to personal information about them (such as likes, dislikes, pet names, friend’s names) that could be used for grooming.
Teaching a child how to make a secure password and use two-factor authentication may sound like a daunting task but you can use our Cyber Security Toolkit designed for children to help.
Tips for Parents and Carers
Enable Safety Settings and Parental Controls
Use our Safety Centre to learn together how to enable the most appropriate safety settings and use parental controls on apps and platforms that the child or young person in your care uses.
Safety settings are there to help protect children and young people from unsolicited contact, harmful content and unintentional exposure of personal information.
Make a habit of checking these every so often – apps and platforms are often updating these, and it can be easy to miss or offhandedly dismiss notifications about these changes.
Talk About Online Issues
We know that children and young people spend a lot of their time online, but do you have an open and honest conversation with them about what they’re doing during that time?
Building a relationship in which they feel free and safe to talk to you about their ‘online world’ will make a great foundation should they come across harmful and/or illegal content and want to talk to you about it.
Equally, make sure they know who their Trusted Adults are so there are plenty of options of people to talk to.
Tips for Schools
Take a Whole School Approach
Keeping children and young people safer online is easier and more effective when the whole school community works together. From lessons in the classroom to homework at the dinner table, school staff, parents and carers should be on the ‘same page’ with how we teach our children and young people to stay safe in the digital world.
Using shared resources, adapted for the user, like our Teach Hub and Home Learning Hub, can help keep the messaging and lessons consistent, practical and, importantly, up-to-date.
Our Safer Schools NI App brings school communities together when it comes to safeguarding and enables a whole school approach that works. Find out more, including how to become a NI Safer School today, here.
Teach Digital Resilience
Teaching digital resilience gives children and young people the foundational knowledge they need to be safer in an online world. It provides them with the tools needed to understand risks, make informed decisions, and know how to access support and resources when needed.
By teaching children and young people fundamental skills, such as how to block and report, who their Trusted Adults are and what steps to take when things go wrong, you’re providing them with the resilience needed for their digital journeys through life.
Everyone has a part to play in keeping children and young people safer online. Make sure you’re subscribed to receive our Safeguarding Alerts to help safeguard children in today’s digital world.