As society's use of the internet, especially social media, has increased, it has become apparent that harmful content online can lead to serious real-world consequences. These include the damage caused by online bullying and abuse, as well as the spread of misinformation and hate speech. The UK Government's legislative response, promising a "zero-tolerance approach to protecting children from online harm, while empowering adults with more choices over what they see online," passed into law in October 2023 as the Online Safety Act.
The Act targets three main categories of harmful content: illegal content (in relation to criminal as opposed to civil offences); content that is lawful but nevertheless "harmful to children"; and fraudulent advertising. There are also provisions targeting certain pornographic content. Although the Act places the greatest obligations on service providers that are high-risk and high-reach, such as the large social media platforms, the Government estimates that 25,000 businesses will be affected (including online marketplaces, dating apps, online games and forums), as well as those that have links to the UK, but operate outside. All companies in scope will owe their users a duty of care, and will be required to put in place systems and processes to protect their users. The Act places additional duties on services "likely to be accessed by children". Failure to comply with the Act and associated regulations, which will be enforced by OFCOM as the new internet regulator, may lead to penalties, including fines of up to £18 million or ten percent of global turnover, whichever is higher, as well as potential criminal sanctions for senior managers.
The Online Safety Act will revolutionise how we interact online and, it is hoped, afford significantly better protection to victims of online harms. There remain, however, huge questions as to how the scheme will operate in practice, its impact on businesses (including new businesses) and the implications for privacy rights and freedom of speech. We will monitor its impact closely.
Keeping up to date
This page provides links to key documents and commentary on the Act, the Bill as it was, and broader issues relating to online harms.
If you have any questions about how the Act may affect you or your business, please contact a member of the team or send us an email. Our multi-disciplinary team includes lawyers and non-lawyers with expertise in reputation protection and crisis management, data protection, child safety, criminal law, regulatory compliance and disputes, and cyber security.
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