The UK Could Finally Make Social Media a Safer Place

Its Online Safety Bill will force Instagram, Snap and others to show how damaging their algorithms can be to kids — if it ever gets through Parliament.

| Updated on: Dec 07 2022, 01:05 IST
The law, first proposed in 2019, cleverly threads the needle between guarding free speech and protecting internet users from harmful content. (AP)
The law, first proposed in 2019, cleverly threads the needle between guarding free speech and protecting internet users from harmful content. (AP)

Britain's Online Safety Bill, one of the most important new laws aiming to force checks and balances on the social media industry, was finally debated in Parliament on Monday. If the bill doesn't pass by April 2023, it could be dropped entirely. Britain's legislators shouldn't let that happen.

The law, first proposed in 2019, cleverly threads the needle between guarding free speech and protecting internet users from harmful content. It is not perfect, but it takes a relatively balanced approach that treats social media platforms like real-world environments that need to follow health and safety rules. In the same way that a grocery store is culpable for someone slipping on a wet floor on their premises, so too should Facebook or Instagram have a duty of care to prevent and address harassment or misinformation.

Crucially, the legislation avoids falling into the trap of censorship because it doesn't call for tech platforms to actually remove harmful content, but be much more transparent about its side-effects.   

Yet the UK bill has become more controversial than it needs to be. One Conservative politician recently said it was “legislating for hurt feelings.” In fact, it is forcing social media companies to be more open about the risks of harm that their services might cause, along the lines of the type of internal Facebook research that whistleblower Frances Haugen released to the public last year.

The bill essentially forces large social media companies to share the results of their risk assessments with Ofcom, the UK's telecommunications regulator which has been hiring hundreds of new staff with online expertise to get it ready to tackle social media companies. Ofcom will then analyze the results, which will then be summarized and published on the platform's terms of service pages.

The idea is to give adults a better sense of how likely they are to be exposed to toxic content, and give them more control over what they then see. The law will also force tech companies to provide adult users with tools to control how much potentially harmful content they stumble across, according to a summary of the bill's latest iteration by Lorna Woods, a professor of internet law at the University of Essex who was one of the legislation's first authors.                

The rules are stricter with children, and platforms will have to reduce the amount of potentially harmful content shown to them by default. A recent update to the bill saw the government take that one step further: Anyone who encourages a child to self harm or commit suicide will face criminal charges under the new law. That shouldn't stop young people and adults from discussing self-harm issues in online forums in good faith, something that can be valuable to those who are suffering. 

It is a complex, grey area to legislate, but the U.K. has done its homework. The country's law commission — a statutory independent body that reviews legislation and recommends reform where needed — has laid the groundwork to make the Online Safety bill workable for self-harm, last year setting out a relatively high threshold for what constitutes the promotion of self-harming or suicide.

The Conservative government's goal has been to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online. But it has watered down some aspects of the bill in the last week, in particular to lessen the pressure on platforms to protect adults. For instance, encouraging someone to self-harm stops being a criminal offense when the person is over 18. That has upset some mental health charities like The Samaritans, which runs a phone line in the UK for people struggling with suicidal thoughts.

But the bill still goes further than anything on the legislative docket in the US, and could yet roll out before the European Union's own online content law. And if protections for adult internet users need to be added down the line, British legislators can always strengthen their law in the future.

The two stumbling blocks will be how Britain wants platforms to determine whether its users are under 18, a process known as age-verification. Most social platforms already have a good idea of how old its users are, based on what they like and post, but putting other methods of authentication into law, like biometric face scanning, could prove controversial.

The second is passing the law at all. The bill has already survived four prime ministers and factional warfare within the Conservative party, which nearly killed it off entirely. Legislators must ensure the law sees the light of day. Facebook whistleblower Haugen revealed the disturbing extent of harm caused to teen girls and on Instagram, and Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter looks set to unleash a torrent of hate speech as he dispel's the platform's moderators. Social media needs the UK's law now more than ever.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”

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First Published Date: 07 Dec, 01:05 IST
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