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The wait goes on for the Online Safety Bill


t the beginning of 2022, it was expected that by the end of the year, the Online Safety Bill would have become law and the UK would be in the early stages of regulating social media platforms.

Instead, as the year winds down, the long-awaited Bill is still in Parliament with key aspects of its structure being debated both in Westminster and beyond.

In the works for more than five years now, the latest delays to the internet safety rules are similar to some previous stumbling blocks – a change of Government and minister overseeing it meaning a change in the Bill’s focus.

For some time now, the biggest area of debate around the Online Safety Bill has been the “legal but harmful” duties, which would have required the biggest platforms to set out how they would handle content that could be considered harmful – such as that around glorifying eating disorders – and if and how they would police it.

Some argued that these duties were vital to protect users, particularly children, from harmful online content, but others raised concerns that the measures were too far-reaching and could lead to the censorship of legal speech as platforms over-moderated to avoid the financial penalties the Bill would also introduce.

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As the debate raged, Boris Johnson’s premiership collapsed, and the Conservative leadership contest to find his replacement saw the Bill’s return to Parliament pushed back.

Then, after taking over from Nadine Dorries, new Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan sided with the free speech arm of the debate and announced that the legal but harmful duties were being removed from the Bill.

Instead, platforms would now be required to provide their adult users with more tools to filter out potentially harmful content they don’t want to see.

Ms Donelan said in November that the changes mark a more “common-sense” approach and that the legal but harmful duties had been the “anchor” stalling the Bill.

However, some online safety campaigners have accused the Government of now watering down the Bill as debate continues over what parameters it should have in place.

The Government has not been drawn on a timeline for the Bill’s progress through Parliament, but online safety campaigner Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly ended her own life after viewing harmful content online, has said it was “vital” the Bill was passed into law “next year” as it could “quite literally save lives”.

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