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UK to change proposed Online Safety Bill limits on ‘legal but harmful’ adult content • TechCrunch


Changes are being made to the UK’s Online Safety Bill, which continues to spark controversy over its impact on free speech. The Online Safety Bill has already taken years to draft, but new Prime Minister Liz Truss signaled earlier this month that she wanted ‘tweaks’ to ensure it doesn’t carry no infringement of freedom of expression.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning, Michelle Donelan (pictured above), the new Secretary of State appointed by Truss to lead the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ( DCMS), hinted that these upcoming changes would focus on restrictions in the area of ​​legal but harmful speech.

Asked about the new category of “legal but harmful speech” the bill creates – and whether or not she would retain it – Donelan confirmed “that’s what we’re going to change”.

She declined to provide exact details of upcoming policy changes, saying the changes would be tabled in parliament in due course. However, she clarified that the changes will focus on dismantling restrictions for adults, not children. “This element is about adults,” she pointed out. “The elements relating to children and online safety will not change – and that is the overriding aim of the bill and why we put it in our manifesto.”

This raises questions about how platforms that do not verify the age of their users could prevent children from being exposed to unrestricted legal but harmful content that they could show to adults – without that A) enforces the restriction anyway (i.e. in case children stumble upon such content) thus generally purging “legal but harmful content” with consequent damage to speech; or B) verifying the age of all users, thereby placing the UK social web behind a universal age barrier; or C) using some form of targeted age assurance technology on users they suspect to be underage, assuming they are willing to take the legal risks if they fail to identify all minors and end up showing content prohibited to children.

Pressed on how the bill will protect children if legal but harmful content is allowed, Donelan declined to go into specifics – so we’ll have to wait and see if the government will recommend platforms opt for A. ), B) or C) – saying only: “We will ensure that children are protected.

“The main part of the bill is to make it a priority for social media providers and websites that generate user content and make sure that if they do it the wrong way, we can fine them. mass, which would be very punitive and prevent them from doing it again and be really deterrent in the first place, ”she added.

The new DCMS Secretary of State was also pressed on the issue of the criminal liability of senior leaders. The bill includes such powers for senior executives of companies that do not cooperate with regulatory information requests. However, online safety campaigners have been pushing to expand personal liability powers – calling for prosecutions to be able to lead to fines for those people or even jail time.

Donelan confirmed that such broad criminal liability powers are not currently in the bill. And while she hasn’t outright ruled out the possibility that the government might consider expanding provisions in this area, she suggested that her priorities (and ideology) are focused elsewhere.

“I’ve only been in this position for two weeks, I’m going to look at the bill in circles – but my clear objective is to get this bill home quickly, to change what little we’ve been very upfront that we ‘edit and to make sure that we put it into law because of course we want to have it put into law as soon as possible to protect children when they access content online,” he said. she stated.

“I’m a champion of free speech – absolutely,” she added at another point in the interview, explaining why the government is removing restrictions on legal but harmful adult content. “We have to make sure we have the right balance in this bill. And we are a government that will make bold and decisive decisions, but if there are things that need to be reviewed, we certainly will not hesitate to do so.

Molly Russell Investigation

In related news today, an inquest opens into the suicide five years ago of 14-year-old Molly Russell. The schoolgirl had viewed pro-suicide and self-made content on Instagram – and her death has galvanized campaigners for online safety legislation. The investigation is expected to focus on major tech platforms, questioning their role in the tragedy. The BBC reports that senior executives from Meta and Pinterest are to give evidence in the inquest after being ordered to appear by the coroner.

Donelan described Russell’s story as ‘heartbreaking’ – and said the investigation to gather evidence from tech companies is an ‘important’ moment.

“I think it is important that this investigation moves forward. That major social media players will come to the investigation, submit information and evidence – so that we can properly access what they did and the role they played,” the secretary said. DCMS state, adding: “We need to make sure as a government that we prevent horrific incidents like this from happening again.

Donelan dodged the question of whether or not she agrees with criticism from child safety campaigners that social media companies have made a business decision not to invest in child safety measures. But added: ‘We need to hold them accountable on these issues, we need to make sure they put the welfare and well-being of children and young people first when accessing content online in order to avoid cases like this.

“And that’s why we’re introducing the online safety bill – it’s gone through most of the House stages. We need to get it back to the House and get it into law.

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