The UK government has unveiled plans to strengthen its Online Safety Bill, which includes the creation of new criminal offenses.
The legislation, first drafted in May 2021, will place new obligations on social media sites and other services hosting user-generated content or allowing people to talk to others online to remove and limit the spread of illegal and harmful content. This includes child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.
The UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, will be responsible for holding these firms to account, with the power to fine those failing to meet their duty of care up to £18m or 10% of annual global turnover, whichever is higher.
Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries has now announced that three new offenses relating to abusive and offensive online communications will be included in the bill. This followed a review by the Law Commission, which concluded that current laws in this area have not kept pace with the rise of smartphones and social media. The new offenses are:
- A ‘genuinely threatening’ communications offense, where communications are sent or posted to convey a threat of serious harm. This will combat online threats to rape, kill and inflict physical violence or cause people serious financial harm. This is particularly designed to protect public figures such as MPs, celebrities or footballers.
- A harm-based communications offense to capture communications sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse. This offense will be based on the intended psychological harm towards the victim by considering the context in which the communication was sent. It is hoped this will better tackle abusive messages towards women and girls, which may not seem obviously harmful when considered on their own. It is also designed to avoid criminalizing communications sent with no intention to cause harm, such as consensual messages between adults.
- An offense for when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm. This will cover false communications deliberately sent to inflict harm, such as hoax bomb threats, instead of misinformation where people are unaware that what they are sending is false or genuinely believe it to be true.
These offenses will carry different maximum sentences, including up to five years in prison for threatening communications.
Professor Penney Lewis, Commissioner for Criminal Law, explained: “The criminal law should target those who specifically intend to cause harm while allowing people to share contested and controversial ideas in good faith. Our recommendations create a more nuanced set of criminal offenses, which better protect victims of genuinely harmful communications as well as better protecting freedom of expression.
“I am delighted that the government has accepted these recommended offenses.”
In addition, new obligations will be placed on social media companies to remove the most harmful illegal content and criminal activity on their sites more quickly. These priority offenses include revenge porn, hate crime, fraud, the sale of illegal drugs or weapons, the promotion or facilitation of suicide, people smuggling and sexual exploitation. Terrorism and child sexual abuse were already categorized in this way. For these types of content, social media sites must take proactive action to prevent them from being viewed by users. This is instead of taking down content in response to user reports.
Dorries commented: “This government said it would legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while enshrining free speech, and that’s exactly what we are going to do. Our world-leading bill will protect children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.
“We are listening to MPs, charities and campaigners who have wanted us to strengthen the legislation, and today’s changes mean we will be able to bring the full weight of the law against those who use the internet as a weapon to ruin people’s lives and do so quicker and more effectively.”