Today, the Online Safety Bill received Royal Assent and became law in the form of the Online Safety Act.
In the words of Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, the Act marks “an historic moment that ensures the online safety of British society not only now, but for decades to come”. Its introduction means that online platforms will be required to:
- block the publishing of illegal content and remove it quickly when it does appear;
- enable age-checking measures to prevent children from accessing legal but harmful and age-inappropriate content;
- assess the risks and dangers posed to children on the largest social media platforms and publish risk assessments of the same; and
- provide clear and accessible ways for users to report concerns.
More generally, the Act is intended to provide additional protections for all internet users by:
- requiring illegal content to be removed;
- making platforms responsible for enforcing their commitments to users through terms and conditions;
- offering users the option to filter out harmful content, such as bullying;
- requiring platforms to prevent users being exposed to online fraud by blocking and removing scams;
- criminalising (with a maximum penalty of 6 months in custody) the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, including deepfakes; and
- forcing platforms to prevent activity that facilitates animal cruelty and torture (even if the act takes place outside of the UK).
The government's press release on the Act indicates that the “majority” of the Act’s provisions will commence in two months’ time (although it is not clear at this stage to which provisions this relates and how service providers will be expected to comply so soon after the Act has come into force). However, we also understand that, from today, Ofcom will receive powers to begin preparatory work to implement and enforce the Act as the online safety regulator.
Ofcom will prioritise enforcing rules against the most harmful content as part of a phased approach to the Act's implementation, which will run as follows:
- Phase one: illegal harms duties
- On 9 November, Ofcom will publish a number of draft codes and guidance on these duties, following which it will launch a consultation and publish a final decision in Autumn 2024.
- Phase two: child safety, pornography and the protection of women and girls
- Ofcom will release draft guidance on age assurance from December 2023, with further draft codes of practice relating to child protection being released in Spring 2024 and draft guidance on protecting women and girls by Spring 2025.
- Phase three: transparency, user empowerment, and other duties on categorised services
- Ofcom will issue a call for evidence regarding these duties in early 2024 and launch a consultation on draft transparency guidance in mid-2024. Further, Ofcom begin work regarding the register of categorised services in early 2024.
If you'd like to discuss how the new Online Safety Act affects you, please get in touch. For more information, please also see our article following the approval of the Online Safety Bill.
Today will go down as an historic moment that ensures the online safety of British society not only now, but for decades to come. I am immensely proud of the work that has gone into the Online Safety Act from its very inception to it becoming law today. The Bill protects free speech, empowers adults and will ensure that platforms remove illegal content.