New measures have been introduced to push tougher criminal sanctions on tech bosses and data manipulation

An amended version of the Online Safety Bill, containing tougher and quicker criminal sanctions for tech bosses as well as offences for falsifying and destroying data, has been introduced to the House of Commons today (18 March 2022).

The bill, first published in draft in May 2021, aims to create a safer online environment for internet users by holding firms to account on protecting freedom of speech, limiting people’s exposure to illegal content and shielding children from harmful content such as pornography.

Under the proposed legistlation, companies which fail to comply could be fined up to 10% of annual global turnover by regulator Ofcom.

Executives whose companies fail to cooperate with the regulator’s information requests could also face prosecution or jail time within two month of the bill becoming law, instead of two years as previously drafted.

Meanwhile, new offences have been added to make in-scope companies’ senior managers criminally liable for destroying evidence, failing to attend or providing false information in interviews with Ofcom and for obstructing the regulator when entering business offices.

Highlighting how online fraud has put “millions of people at risk”, Aviva’s fraud prevention director Rob Lee said: “This legislation could not be more urgent, as it comes at a time of significant increases in the cost of living and increased financial stress – we know that fraudsters target and exploit people with low financial resilience.”

Lee added that the insurer will be reviewing the draft legislation in detail to ensure it “lives up to the Government’s aim”.

Further bill changes

Users will now, based on amendments to the bill, have the right to appeal on freedom of speech grounds if they feel their post has been taken down unfairly.

Social media platforms will only be required to tackle ”legal but harmful” content, such as exposure to self-harm, harassment and eating disorders, alongside protecting journalism and democratic political debate on their platforms.

Reducing firm’s focuses on additional content aims to remove any incentives or pressure for platforms to over-remove legal content or controversial comments, as well as clarify what constitutes “legal but harmful” content.

Ministers will also continue to consider how to ensure platforms do not remove content from recognised media outlets.

News content will be completely exempt from any regulation under the bill.

Criminality running ‘riot’

Nadine Dorries, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport of the United Kingdom, said: “The internet has transformed our lives for the better. It’s connected us and empowered us. But on the other side, tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platforms.

“Instead, they have been left to mark their own homework.

“We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age.

“If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms.”

The changes follow the UK Government introducing a new legal duty to the bill earlier this month (8 March 2022), which requires social media platforms and social engines to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts appearing on their services.

Allianz Commercial head of counter fraud James Burge said the business welcomes this addition as it “will give consumers additional protection” from fraudsters.