Online security

‘Meaningful improvements’ to be made to proposed online safety laws, MPs say

Efforts to tackle cyber-blinking and fraudulent paid advertising could be among “meaningful improvements” to proposed online safety laws, the government has said.

The Online Safety Bill was finally published in May 2021, proposing significant fines for companies that fail to deal with online abuse. Under the law, senior executives could also be subject to criminal prosecution and certain websites could be blocked.

In December, the joint committee reviewing the draft bill concluded that serious changes were needed to “call the hour on the Wild West online”. Notably, Peers and MPs wrote in their report on the bill that it needs to be clearer about illegal content online.

Speaking in the House of Commons last night (January 13), Culture Minister Chris Philp told MPs there are a “number of areas” where the Online Safety Bill can be ” significantly improved”, with revised legislation expected in the next few years. month.

Philp’s remarks came as MPs debated a Joint Committee report on the Online Safety Bill, which said more offenses needed to be covered. These included paid scams and fraudulent advertisements, cyber flashing, content promoting self-harm, and the deliberate sending of flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy.

The bill also needs to be clearer about what is specifically illegal online and proposes that porn sites have a legal duty to keep children away whether or not they host user-to-user content, adds the report among its other recommendations.

The long-awaited legislation is expected to require the biggest operators, such as Meta (formerly Facebook) and Google, to abide by a duty of care to users, overseen by Ofcom as the new industry regulator.

Concluding a debate in the House of Commons, Philp said: ‘We understand there are a number of areas where this Bill can be significantly improved. The government certainly does not have a monopoly on wisdom and we certainly intend to take advantage of the vast experience of committee members and of this House to make significant improvements to this bill and we intend to present a revised and updated bill before the end of the current session.

Philp added: ‘I will not be announcing any firm commitments in advance today as work is still ongoing, including the collective bargaining process in government.

“But on fraud and paid advertising, we’ve heard the message from the Joint Committee, from the Financial Conduct Authority, from the financial services industry, from campaigners, from Members of this House – it’s a message that the Government has absolutely heard and this is something we very much hope we will be able to address when we introduce the bill, but I cannot make any specific commitments as the work is still in progress.

He added that “the message” was also heard about the Law Commission’s work on communications offenses which “will really narrow some of the issues around what are essentially malicious or harmful communications, issues such as cyber -blinking and problems related to epilepsy”.

Philp continued, “We are looking at these Law Commission proposals very positively and very carefully, as the joint committee has recommended to us. We also heard very clearly the messages about commercial pornography.

‘We understand the issues that the bill as written does not cover this and again this is something we are currently working very, very hard on.’

Philp said the government was also looking at calls for users to choose to protect themselves from anonymous content.

Earlier, Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse (Bath) raised concern that perpetrators of cyber-blinks were often able to get away with it without facing the consequences.

She said: “Cyberflashing is a particularly prevalent form of online violence against women and disproportionately affects young women and girls – 76% of girls aged 12-18 and 41% of all women said they received unsolicited penis images.

“Like flashing in real life, cyber flashing can frighten, it can humiliate, it can violate boundaries, it is a form of sexual harassment from which even the physical confines of a home offer no respite. .”

Urging the government to close a “gap” in the law, she added: “Too often the trauma they experience is trivialised.

Former Conservative Culture Minister Matt Warman agrees, saying: “Flashing is illegal in the real world, the idea that it’s not illegal online is absurd. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation.

“There are a lot of elements of this bill where, in fact, it’s just a tidying up exercise, our legislation hasn’t kept pace with the changing nature of the digital world.”

He added that there was often a problem of “resources that the police allocate to online crime”, with online crime often being “treated fundamentally differently”.

In November last year, Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes welcomed the Online Safety Bill as a way to allow the watchdog to better regulate big tech companies, while acknowledging that monitoring social networks will be “really difficult”. Dawes also suggested that some areas of the proposed laws should be tougher.

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