The Online Safety Bill
7 Mar 2022
Preventing early exposure to harmful materials and abuse in the age of Everyone’s Invited.
What did we learn from Everyone’s Invited?
The past year has brought into sharp focus the extent of online harm faced by children today. The Everyone’s Invited movement, which came to mainstream attention in March 2021, brought to light thousands of anonymous testimonials by young people about the sexual harassment, abuse and misogyny they have experienced, perpetrated by their own peers in UK schools. While many of the issues were not new, many teachers and caregivers were shocked by the extent to which these harms have been amplified and intensified by online platforms.
Research by the Children’s Commissioner’s office last year found that children are routinely exposed to a wide variety of harmful content online, directly impacting the way they interact with their peers. It highlights that over half of 11–13-year-olds have seen pornography, with sexual content now so widespread that it is often found accidentally. We know that there are links between a child’s early exposure to this material and their subsequent treatment and perception of women and girls. Several studies show that viewing pornography in adolescence increases the likelihood of sexually aggressive or coercive behaviour.
How can we address this?
The draft Online Safety Bill was introduced in recognition of this, as well as the harms posed to adults. It is seen as one of the most ambitious attempts to date to regulate online services and content, targeting almost any user-to-user service.
The Bill is extraterritorial in scope, providing for Ofcom to regulate any online services that deal with “a significant number” of UK users. Services that are likely to be accessed by children must carry out frequent children’s risk assessments, with a duty to mitigate and assess potential harm to individuals. Current provisions would make technology executives criminally liable for their companies’ failure to protect vulnerable users, and Ofcom will have the power to impose gigantic fines of up to 10% of annual global turnover on firms that fail in their duty of care.
For the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza, the Bill will represent “a significant step forward in protecting children online”, by placing obligations and a duty of care on many online services. However, many argue that cracks remain, and insidious tactics are readily deployed by those prepared to play the system. Various stakeholders have raised concerns that the Bill’s provisions do not go far enough to protect women and girls, or do not equip the regulator with the clout needed to govern such fast-moving, international services.
January’s report by the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) raised the concern that the Bill was neither clear nor robust enough to tackle certain types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services. It called on the Government to bring into scope content such as tech-enabled “nudifying” of women and deepfake pornography – content that is harmful but legal, citing numerous other examples.
Jamie Klingler, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets last month launched a petition for Meta to review its policies after a fake Instagram page was set up in her name, posting explicit images of an unknown woman’s body. No applicable law could protect Klingler, since the images were not of her own body, and the images were broadcast, rather than messaged directly, meaning police were unable to act.
[Her story] demonstrates that in an increasingly complex and creative online environment, harmful loopholes are numerous and evolving, and that to address online harms, ministers must take an expansive and agile approach.
Anna Cacciaguerra Ranghieri, Associate, DRD Partnership
Government seems to have recognised this when it comes to early exposure to explicit material, having this month announced that the Bill will require all sites publishing pornography to use age verification checks. The original Bill only covered user-to-user sites like OnlyFans, meaning that porn platforms could easily ensure they were outside the scope of the Bill by removing any user-uploaded content – a move made by Pornhub in December 2020. The introduction of age-verification on such sites will be welcomed by schools, since fast-evolving and new platforms make monitoring online usage extremely challenging for parents and staff.
The Bill will not be the end-all solution to issues such as peer-on-peer sexual abuse, harassment and misogyny in schools. However, improved control by Government to prevent access to harmful material by children, and to tackle online abuse will be important pieces in the puzzle. The trick will be staying agile enough to plug the gaps.