14 December 2021

The new law aimed at stopping harmful online content puts too much trust in social media companies’ judgement of danger, the professional body for the IT industry has warned.

The Online Safety Bill aims to make platforms more accountable for user-generated harmful content they host, such as a child sex exploitation.

A Joint Committee appointed to consider the bill reported back today (14 December) and recommended a range of changes to the bill, including bringing more offences into scope.

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT said a chief concern parents would have with the bill, was that it seemed to rely “entirely on the platforms’ own risk assessments and reporting” about what is harmful.

Many of the definitions in the bill were too abstract, BCS said; for example the requirement to protect “democratically important” content from removal could lead to wide differences in interpretation. There was also too much potential for ministerial interference with the new regulator (Ofcom) built into the legislation, BCS added.

Dr Bill Mitchell OBE, Director of Policy at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT said: “If I were the mum of a young daughter whose social life is mainly online, it wouldn’t be clear to me if this bill really does do enough to keep her safe. What would bother me is it seems to rely entirely on the platforms’ own risk assessments and their own reporting on how well their systems work at reducing harm.

“I’d want to have more reassurance around how the Bill will guarantee auditing and that accountability of social media platforms is open, transparent and rigorous.

“For me as an IT professional I’d like to have more clarity on how the Bill ensures a future Secretary of State can’t unduly interfere with the independence of Ofcom as the new regulator for social media platforms.

“Lastly, for this legislation to work we also need to provide education and training for people to learn how to dissent in civilised ways on social media. That would help us deal constructively with opinions we don’t like, and less likely to turn into some sort of incandescent rage monster.”

BCS has published a briefing on positive and concerning areas of the Online Safety Bill

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