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After several years of public debate, the UK Parliament has just passed a comprehensive Online Safety Bill that clearly spells out the actions that social media companies need to be taking to protect our children. The largest social media platforms must remove illegal content immediately, and preferably, prevent it from appearing in the first place. The penalties can be enormous – up to $22 million for each offense – so this seems to be legislation with real teeth.
What’s included in the Online Safety Bill?
Without a doubt, the new UK bill is comprehensive. It’s over 300 pages, and it outlines exactly the type of content that should not be appearing on social media, ever. This includes content related to child sexual abuse, extreme sexual violence (such as rape), illegal human trafficking, and suicide and self-harm. In each case, social media platforms must be doing their best to keep this content from ever appearing.
Moreover, the bill is written in such a way that it seeks to anticipate future tech innovations, and what it could mean for the moderation of such content. For example, the bill applies to “deep fake” pornography. And it will also apply to imagery, videos, or content produced via generative AI. As a result, parents and their children won’t have to worry about doctored images of their kids appearing online, engaging in all sorts of abominable sexual acts.
Purpose of the bill
Obviously, the purpose of this new UK bill is to rein in Big Tech. In recent years, the biggest social media platforms have emphasized profits over privacy, and user growth over user experience. The only way to impact these tech giants is via their pocketbooks, which is why the financial penalties are so onerous. Given the bipartisan support for this bill, it’s hard to see how companies like Meta can possibly weasel their way out of paying fines for allowing certain age-inappropriate content from appearing online.
What could possibly go wrong?
On the surface, this appears to be a remarkable piece of legislation, and a real reason for celebration for our colleagues across the pond. However, as might be imagined, the biggest tech lobbying groups are already starting to push back. They are calling the bill a threat to freedom of expression, with the potential for chilling effects felt across social media.
Moreover, it must be pointed out that some of the provisions of the bill were obviously written by people who have never used certain social media platforms. For example, take WhatsApp, which is a social media platform that will be impacted by this bill. The whole point of WhatsApp is end-to-end encryption, which essentially means that the only people who can read a message is the person sending the message and the person receiving the message. Based on language within the bill (which calls on tech firms to prevent age-inappropriate content from ever appearing in the first place), it would almost seem as if the UK legislators want WhatsApp to break this end-to-end encryption, in order to peer into the contents of each message. This raises all sorts of privacy concerns.
And the same type of problem also exists for Wikipedia, which is covered by the Online Safety Act. The whole point of Wikipedia is that there is no central editorial team at Wikipedia HQ creating all the content found on the site. Instead, it’s a system in which individual (and often anonymous) creators from all over the world constantly update the site. So how is Wikipedia possibly supposed to stop bad actors from uploading age-inappropriate content?
A template for US lawmakers
That being said, I really see this new legislation as a template for what U.S. lawmakers can enact. What’s needed is comprehensive, forward-looking legislation that really protects our kids online, and serves up substantial penalties to any firms not taking this seriously. Having one single comprehensive piece of legislation passed by federal lawmakers could ultimately be much more effective than a patchwork system of competing legislation offered by various states. The time to act is now, and for that, we have our UK parliamentary peers to thank.