The sharing of some of the most insidious images of child abuse will not be stopped by a new government bill to make the internet safer, MPs have said.
According to a report by the Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Online Safety Bill is not clear or strong enough to tackle certain forms of illegal and harmful content. The landmark bill imposes a duty of care on tech companies to protect users from harmful content or face substantial fines imposed by communications regulator Ofcom.
“In its current form, what should be world-class landmark legislation rather represents a missed opportunity,” said Julian Knight, DCMS committee chair. “The Online Safety Bill fails to protect freedom of expression and is not clear or strong enough to tackle illegal and harmful online content. There is an urgent need to ensure that some of the most pernicious forms of child sexual abuse do not escape detection due to a failure in online safety law.
The report urges the government to tackle the types of content that are technically legal such as “breadcrumbs”, where child abusers leave digital signs allowing other abusers to find abusive content, and deepfake pornography, which he says is not currently covered by the bill, although creators of deepfake images can be sued for harassment. Regarding child sexual abuse, the committee said the bill should tackle predatory behavior aimed at evading content moderation.
“A starting point should be to reframe the definition of illegal content to explicitly add the need to consider context as a factor, and to explicitly include activity definitions as breadcrumbs across the face of the bill. “, says the report.
As currently drafted, the bill’s duty of care is divided into three parts: preventing the proliferation of illegal content and activities such as child pornography, terrorist material and hate crimes; ensure that children are not exposed to harmful or inappropriate content; and, for big tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, ensuring adults are protected from legal but harmful content, a catch-all term covering issues such as cyberbullying.
The report recommends that the bill provide a definition of legal but harmful content that includes harm to a person’s reputation, national security or public health. The category should also consider attempts to interfere in elections or dissuade the public from voting, he says. Legal but harmful content is not strictly defined in the bill, but it does give the culture secretary a key role in defining it.
Reflecting concerns that the legal but harmful category will affect freedom of expression, the report recommends a “must be balanced” test that assesses whether freedom of expression has been sufficiently protected in content decisions.
The report warns that the bill is “vague” on the definition of illegal content and should be reworded to indicate that it applies to existing criminal offences, rather than regulatory or civil offences. It also calls on Ofcom to have the power to carry out audits of tech companies’ systems. Former Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told MPs and peers last year that Ofcom should have the power to ‘look under the hood’ of tech companies and examine algorithms that could steer users to dangerous content holes.
It is the second committee report to demand changes to the bill, after a joint committee of MPs and peers called for a wide range of amendments, including criminal penalties for tech executives who fail to address “repeating and systemic” security breaches. However, the DCMS committee report pushes back on calls for a standing committee to oversee the law, saying such a move would be a “significant departure from convention” and that oversight of the law should be done by select committees. existing multi-stakeholders.
The government has already suggested ‘significant improvements’ could be made to the bill, with Culture Minister Chris Philp telling MPs during a Commons debate this month that there were a number of areas where the Online Safety Bill could be “significantly improved”. ”.
A DCMS spokesperson dismissed the committee’s criticism of the bill, saying it sets a “gold standard” for safety. They said, “We disagree with the committee’s criticisms. The bill has been recognized as setting a global benchmark for internet security. It has strict measures including a duty of care to root out child sexual abuse, grooming, and illegal and harmful content.
The spokesperson added: “The bill will make the UK the safest place to go online while protecting free speech.”