Article by Tom Knowles for the Times - published on 14 December 2021
Scam financial adverts, “cyberflashing” and encouraging people to self-harm on social media are all expected to be made illegal after a group of MPs and peers said they should be included in a new bill designed to “call time on the Wild West online”.
A parliamentary committee has recommended a number of changes to the long-awaited Online Safety Bill, which is designed to regulate internet companies and social media platforms.
Its proposals include a requirement on all pornography websites to demonstrate what they are doing to stop under-18s accessing their content, and making it illegal to send flashing images to someone with epilepsy if the intention is to cause a seizure.
Damian Collins, the Conservative chairman of the joint committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, said: “For too long big tech has gotten away with being the land of the lawless.”
The group of 12 MPs and peers was tasked with analysing the bill, whose regulations will apply to most online platforms that host any type of content that can be posted or shared by its users.
The committee said it had tried to make it much clearer what constitutes illegal or harmful content online in its recommendations. It hopes this will ensure that companies know what they are responsible for protecting their users from, leaving less room for interpretation of the rules. It said it had also tried to ensure that what is illegal offline, such as flashing someone, is also outlawed online, including the act of sending someone an unsolicited image of genitalia, known as cyberflashing.
The committee also recommends outlawing the encouragement of self-harm online, meaning that platforms such as Instagram and Twitter must take down or hide content that could be seen as glamourising such acts, including pictures of cuts on someone’s arm.
The committee also said that Ofcom, which is to become the regulator for the sector, should be given more powers to investigate, audit and fine tech companies. Dangerous paid-for adverts online, such as those promoting scams and anti-vaccination messages, should be included within the bill.
It also wants to strengthen exemptions for news organisations and whistleblowers to ensure that tech companies such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter cannot “selectively censor” articles or videos they disagree with.
Nadine Dorries, the digital secretary, said: “I’d like to thank the committee for its work. The government will consider its recommendations carefully and incorporate them where we feel the bill can be strengthened further to make Britain the safest place to go online, while protecting free speech.”