Big tech has failed its chance to self-regulate

The Online Safety Bill is the Government's chance to make the internet safer for all


Published 14 December 2021

Published 14 December 2021

The online world has revolutionised our lives

While the internet has created many benefits, underlying systems using data harvesting and microtargeted advertising have shaped the way we experience it.

Algorithms, invisible to the public, decide what we see, hear and experience. For some service providers, this means valuing the engagement of users at all costs, regardless of what holds their attention. This can result in amplifying the false over the true, the extreme over the considered, and the harmful over the benign.

The human cost of an unregulated internet can be counted in:

  • mass murder in Myanmar
  • intensive care beds full of unvaccinated covid-19 patients
  • insurrection at the US Capitol
  • teenagers sent down rabbit holes of content promoting self-harm, eating disorders and suicide.

The Online Safety Bill is a key step forward for democratic societies to bring accountability and responsibility to the internet.

We want the Bill to be easy to understand for service providers and the public alike. It should have clear objectives that lead into precise duties on the providers, with robust powers for the regulator to act when the platforms fail to meet those legal and regulatory requirements.

Online services should be held accountable for the design and operation of their systems and regulation should be governed by a democratic legislature and an independent Regulator—not Silicon Valley.

Four recommendations to strengthen the Bill


Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

1. What's illegal offline should be regulated online

We agree that the criminal law should be the starting point for regulation of potentially harmful online activity, and that safety by design is critical to reduce its prevalence and reach.

A law aimed at online safety that does not require companies to act on, for example, misogynistic abuse or stirring up hatred against disabled people would not be credible. Leaving such abuse unregulated would itself be deeply damaging to freedom of speech online.

2. Ofcom should issue binding Codes of Practice

We recommend that Ofcom be required to issue a binding Code of Practice to assist providers in identifying, reporting on and acting on illegal content, in addition to those on terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse content.

As a public body, Ofcom's Code of Practice will need to comply with human rights legislation and this will provide an additional safeguard for freedom of expression in how providers fulfil this requirement.

3. New criminal offences are needed

We endorse the Law Commission's recommendations for new criminal offences in its reports.

The reports recommend the creation of new offences in relation to a number of harmful online activities.

We recommend that the Government bring in the Law Commission's proposed Communications and Hate Crime offences with the Online Safety Bill, if no faster legislative vehicle can be found. Specific concerns about the drafting of the offences can be addressed by Parliament during their passage.

4. Keep children safe from accessing pornography

All statutory requirements on user-to-user services, for both adults and children, should also apply to Internet Society Services likely to be accessed by children, as defined by the Age Appropriate Design Code. This would have many advantages.

In particular, it would ensure all pornographic websites would have to prevent children from accessing their content. Many such online services present a threat to children both by allowing them access and by hosting illegal videos of extreme content.

What happens now?


Photo: UK Parliament

Photo: UK Parliament

We have made these recommendations to the Government.

The Government now has two months to respond to our report.

Our full report on the Online Safety Bill was published on 14 December 2021.

Detailed information can be found on the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill website. You can also follow our work on Twitter.

The Joint Committee was appointed to consider the Government's draft Online Safety Bill and recommend improvements before it goes to parliament.

The Joint Committee is made up of both MPs from the House of Commons and Peers from the House of Lords. You can find out our membership on our website.

Cover image credit: Compare Fibre via Unsplash