The Online Safety Bill - Balancing protection with freedom of expression

The Online Safety Bill - Balancing protection with freedom of expression

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The Online Safety Bill (Bill) establishes a new regulatory regime in response to the Online Harms White Paper (Paper), published in 2019. The aim is to help protect young people and clamp down on racist abuse online, while safeguarding freedom of expression. It targets a range of different content, from grooming, terrorism and online scams.


It imposes duties of care in relation to illegal content and content that is harmful to children on providers of internet services that allow users to upload and share user-generated content (user-to-user services) and on providers of search engines which enable users to search multiple websites and databases (search services). The Bill has the potential for extra territorial effect outside the UK.

It also imposes duties on such providers in relation to the protection of users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Providers of user-to-user services which meet specified thresholds (Category 1 services) are subject to additional duties in relation to content that is harmful to adults, content of democratic importance and journalistic content.

Why is it needed?

The Paper recognised several online harms, such as harassment, child sex offenders and information regarding self-harm and suicide. It acknowledged that whilst there are a number of different initiatives/measures aiming to deal with the problems highlighted, such efforts have not gone far enough to ensure safety for online users. Creating a clear set of rules will enable companies to implement effective measures to ensure their UK users are safe.

Ofcom powers

Ofcom will be given powers in respect of the Bill and can issue fines of up to £18m or 10% of global turnover, whichever is higher, for failing in a duty of care. In certain circumstances of continuing failure to comply, Ofcom may apply to the court for a service restriction order. There is also the opportunity for eligible entities to make complaints to Ofcom.

In addition, there are criminal implications and there is also a deferred power allowing Ofcom to pursue senior managers of companies who do not comply with requests for information under the Bill.

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