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Published 26 July 2023
The UK's Online Safety Bill ("OSB") is currently at the reporting stage in the House of Lords. The OSB will introduce obligations on companies to regulate illegal content, content which is harmful to children and vulnerable adults, and demands greater transparency measures. The OSB has been subject to significant delay since the Government released the initial White Paper in April 2019 and it has also been subject to many amendments since then. The draft OSB then took almost a year to pass through the House of Commons and finally started its journey in the House of Lords in January 2023. Rather optimistically, it was expected to receive Royal Assent in July 2023, but this has now been delayed further. Due to rules on how many times a Government Bill can be carried over, the OSB needs to obtain Royal Assent before the end of the parliamentary session, which has recently been extended to Autumn 2023. Ofcom has now indicated that Royal Assent is anticipated for Autumn 2023.
Following a detailed line by line review of the OSB from April to June 2023, the OSB has passed through the committee stage of the House of Lords. The House of Lords Committee published its amended OSB in June 2023.
Progress through Parliament
Unsurprisingly, there is a central theme to the most recent amendments: children. The Government has made it clear from the outset that "the objective of the OSB is, above all, to protect children from dangerous content online". This includes material such as pornography, content encouraging or promoting suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, content depicting or encouraging serious violence, or cyberbullying etc. A government amendment will now put the categories of ‘primary priority’ and ‘priority’ content that is harmful to children on the face of the OSB. Further amendments have also been introduced following on from Molly Russell’s inquest as there has been immense public pressure to do so.
Recent amendments have been made of the following topics:
Ofcom's updated roadmap
In June 2023, Ofcom updated its roadmap providing further insight into how they plan to regulate online safety. Once the OSB receives Royal Assent, Ofcom's powers will commence. We understand that Ofcom has already hired further resource to be ready to go once the OSB becomes law. Unusually this is because the Government has funded the regulator in advance to ensure that there is an immediate start once Royal Assent is received.
Ofcom has confirmed that it will publish various consultations on guidance and codes of practice once the OSB has passed. Ofcom envisages a phased approach to consultations around the codes of practice and guidance, with the following focus:
Phase one: Illegal harms duties;
Phase two: Child safety and pornography duties; and
Phase three: transparency, user empowerment, and other duties on categorised platforms
What can we expect next?
The OSB is now heading towards its third reading, thereafter, the OSB will then go back to the House of Commons for consideration. Any further amendments then made by the House of Commons will be sent back to the House of Lords, who may then agree or disagree the further amendments (if any). It is likely that there will be further amendments. We anticipate that there will then be a period of time where the amendments are debated with some back and forth until both Houses can agree the final wording. At which point, the OSB will reach its ultimate destiny… Royal Assent. Ofcom has recently confirmed that Royal Assent is looking likely for Autumn 2023. We will keep you updated on the progress made of what is undoubtedly one of the most significant legislative initiatives affecting the digital technology sector over the past decade.
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