The Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill is being “undermined” by “exemptions and caveats” which give some tech companies a way to avoid responsibility, a new report has warned.
The study by online safety group the 5Rights Foundation said the Government’s current plans did not place children’s rights front and centre but rather attempted to “minimise the regulatory burden on tech companies”.
The Online Safety Bill is due before Parliament this year and is expected to set out a duty of care to which tech companies must adhere, with large financial penalties for those found to be in breach.
The Government has previously said the legislation would help to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
But the 5Rights Foundation report argued that while it welcomes the Bill, in its current form it contains too many exemptions and loopholes, ignores significant harm to children and only covers 3% of all companies.
It said the Bill’s scope is too narrow and should focus on all digital technology that impacts children, not just on services that host user-generated content or facilitate interaction between users.
The report called for the Government to lower the threshold for what it defines as harm in order to capture many more less obvious forms of harm that children experience online, such as financial or consumer-based risks.
It also warned the Bill includes “differentiated expectations on companies” which could lead to loopholes being created as firms remodel themselves to avoid regulation rather than working to make them safer, and called on the Government to not ignore smaller platforms, arguing they need “greater support to comply with regulation, not permission to harm”.
5Rights Foundation chairwoman Baroness Beeban Kidron said: “An Online Safety Bill worthy of its name must keep children safe wherever they are – however big or small the company, whatever the nature of the product and whatever environment they use it in.”
Writing in the report, she added: “The stated purpose of the Online Safety Bill is to prevent harm.
“Yet this is undermined by exemptions and caveats that offer a complicated regulatory landscape with places for companies to hide.
“The responsibilities envisioned in the concept of a duty of care have been limited by restricting the scope.
“The Government defines harm as extreme and individual, when, in reality, many harms of the digital world are incremental, repetitive, cumulative and impact on individuals, groups and on society more broadly.
“There is a worrying lack of clarity about the status of the proposed measures, with a complex set of duties, codes and provisions that may or may not have the full force of law.”
A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokeswoman said: “Our world-leading tough Bill will set a global standard for safety online. It will target platforms where the risks lie and companies will have a strict duty to stop children being exposed to harmful content.
“There will be no loopholes and they will face tough sanctions including multi-billion pound fines if they do not step up.”