Ofcom will now be able to issue fines to websites that do not comply with the bill’s measures
Insurers Aviva and Allianz have backed the latest move from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to strengthen the Online Safety Bill (OSB) and crack down on illegal online content.
On 4 February 2022, digital secretary Nadine Dorries explained that as part of the OSB, the DCMS has created a list of criminal content that technology firms will be required to proactively remove as a priority - this includes online drug and weapons dealing, people smuggling, revenge porn, sexual exploitation, fraud, promoting suicide and inciting or controlling prostitution for gain.
Child sexual abuse and terrorism were already included within the bill’s remit.
These new criminal offences have been added to the OSB in a bid to tackle domestic violence, murder and rape threats. The criminal content list also hopes to force social media companies to stamp out harmful illegal content and criminal activity on websites quicker.
As part of the OSB’s update, the broadcast regulator the Office of Communications (Ofcom) will now be able to issue fines of up to 10% of annual worldwide turnover to non-compliant websites or block them from being accessible in the UK.
None of these offences will apply to regulated media, such as print and online journalism, TV, radio and film.
Rob Lee, Aviva’s director of fraud prevention and casualty claims, said: “Aviva has been campaigning for financial harm to be included within scope of the bill, as online fraud can have a devastating impact on the financial and mental wellbeing of victims.
”We will need to examine the detail of the bill when it’s presented to parliament for further scrutiny, to ensure that consumers are adequately protected at every stage of their online journey.
“The legislation needs to tackle the problem of financial scams and misleading financial promotions. Our concern is centred on the sharp practices employed by fraudsters, which mislead consumers and put them at serious risk of financial harm.”
In November 2021, Aviva called on the UK government to make the OSB inclusive of spoofing scams after the FCA reported that £78m was stolen by clone investment firm scams in 2020.
Three new offences
The draft Online Safety Bill in its current form already places a duty of care on internet companies that host user-generated content - such as social media sites, video sharing platforms and search engines - to limit the spread of illegal content on these services.
Previously, firms would have been forced to remove illegal content from sites once reported by users, but the OSB’s amendment means firms will now have to be more proactive to prevent people being exposed in the first instance.
The amendment sees new three criminal offences added to the scope of the OSB - these were recommended by statutory independent body the Law Commission, to make sure criminal law is fit for the internet age.
The offences include:
- A “genuinely threatening” communications offence, where communications are sent or posted to convey a threat of serious harm. This encompasses online rape threats, as well as threats to kill or inflict physical violence on someone, or communications that cause people serious financial harm. This will provide better protection for public figures such as MPs, celebrities or footballers who receive extremely harmful messages threatening their safety.
- A harm-based communications offence to capture communications sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse. Based on the intended psychological harm in communications, rather than requiring proof that harm had been caused, this offence aims to make it easier to prosecute online abusers, such as those committing domestic violence against women and girls.
- An offence for when a person sends a communication they know to be false, with the intention to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm. For example, hoax bomb threats.
The offences will fall into the following categories:
- Encouraging or assisting suicide.
- Offences relating to sexual images, such as revenge and extreme pornography.
- Incitement to and threats of violence.
- Hate crime.
- Public order offences – harassment and stalking.
- Drug-related offences.
- Weapons/firearms offences.
- Fraud and financial crime.
- Money laundering.
- Controlling, causing, or inciting prostitutes for gain.
- Organised immigration offences.
Full weight of the law
Dorries said: “This government said it would legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while enshrining free speech and that’s exactly what we are going to do.
”Our world leading bill will protect children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.
“We are listening to MPs, charities and campaigners who have wanted us to strengthen the legislation and [the] changes mean we will be able to bring the full weight of the law against those who use the internet as a weapon to ruin people’s lives and [to] do so quicker and more effectively.”
The report revealed that 87% of respondents believe the government should legislate to ensure search engines and social media sites do not mislead consumers or promote financial scams, while 85% said search engines should be responsible for ensuring advertising content on their platforms is not misleading.
Over half (53%) of the internet users polled by Aviva do not trust that the adverts on search engines are placed by a legitimate financial services company or provider and 56% do not believe that search engines verify the authenticity of financial products, services, or providers.
Lee added: “There is a clear mistrust of financial services adverts online. However, there is no legal responsibility for technology firms to verify the legitimacy of the companies which pay them to publish adverts on their platforms.
“This potentially leaves millions of internet users exposed to unscrupulous adverts.”
Meanwhile, James Burge, head of counter fraud at Allianz Commercial, said: “Fraud and financial crime are now among the priority offences that the Online Safety Bill will tackle and it is a relief for us.
”These offences can cause great distress to people who fall victim to them and it is only fair that internet companies – including search engines – do more to stop the spread of illegal content. We constantly do all we can to combat fraud and protect customers.”