‘Significant improvements’ to be made to proposed online safety laws, MPs told

The government said efforts to tackle electronic flickering and paid deceptive ads could be part of “significant improvements” to proposed online security laws.

The online security bill was finally published in May 2021, proposing heavy fines for companies that fail to deal with online abuse. Under the legislation, top executives may also face criminal prosecution and some websites may be blocked.

In December, the joint committee responsible for reviewing the bill concluded that serious changes were needed to “call time in the online Wild West.” Notably, peers and MPs wrote in their report on the bill that it should be clearer about illegal content on the Internet.

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday evening (January 13), Culture Secretary Chris Philp told MPs there were “a number of areas” where the online safety law could be “significantly improved”, with revised legislation expected in the coming months.

Philip’s comments came as lawmakers discussed a report prepared by the Joint Committee on the Internet Security Bill, which said more crimes should be covered. This included paid scams and fraudulent advertising, electronic flashing, content promoting self-harm, and the intentional sending of flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy.

Among its other recommendations, the report added that the bill should be clearer about what specifically is illegal on the Internet and suggested that porn sites have a legal duty to keep children away from them regardless of whether they host user-to-user content.

The long-awaited legislation is expected to force major operators, such as Meta (formerly Facebook) and Google, to comply with a duty of care for users, which Ofcom is overseeing as the sector’s new regulator.

Concluding the House of Commons debate, Philp said: “We understand that there are a number of areas where this bill could be significantly improved. Government certainly does not have a monopoly on wisdom, and we certainly intend to draw upon the tremendous experience of the members of the committees and this House in making significant improvements to the this bill, and we intend to submit a revised and updated bill before the end of the current session.”

Philip added: “I will not pre-announce any firm commitments today because work continues, including the collective agreement process in government.

“But in terms of fraud and paid advertising, we have heard the message of the Joint Commission, the Financial Conduct Authority, the financial services sector, the activists and members of this council — it is a message that the government has fully heard and it is something we very much hope we will be able to address when we introduce the bill, but I cannot make any commitments. Specific because the work is still going on.”

He added that the “letter” was also heard about the work of the Legal Committee on Communications Crimes that “will really toughen some of the issues related to what are essentially malicious or malicious communications, issues like cyber-flashing and issues related to epilepsy.”

Philip continued, “We are considering this Law Committee’s proposals very positively and very carefully, as recommended by the Joint Committee. We have also heard very clearly the messages regarding commercial pornography.”

“We understand the issues raised by the fact that the bill as drafted does not cover that and again that’s something we’re currently working on really, really hard.”

Philip said the government is also considering calls for users to be able to choose to protect themselves from anonymous content.

Earlier, Liberal Democrat Representative Wera Hobhouse (Bath) shared her concerns that perpetrators of electronic flashes are often able to get away with not facing the consequences.

She said: “Electronic flashing is a particularly prevalent form of online violence against women and disproportionately affects young women and girls – 76% of girls between 12 and 18 and 41% of all women reported sending unsolicited images of their penis.

“Like real-life flashing, electronic flashing can be intimidating, it can humiliate, it can violate boundaries, it is a form of sexual harassment that not even the physical boundaries of the home provide any respite.”

She urged the government to close a “loophole” in the law, adding: “Often the trauma they are exposed to is underestimated.”

Former Conservative Culture Secretary Matt Warman agreed, saying, “Flashing is illegal in the real world, and the idea that it might not be illegal on the Internet is ridiculous. We shouldn’t be having that conversation.”

“There are an overwhelming number of parts of this bill where it is really just a process of regulation as our legislation has not kept pace with the changing nature of the digital world.”

He added that there has often been an issue with “the resources the police dedicate to cybercrime”, as “online crime is often approached quite differently”.

In November last year, Ofcom CEO Melanie Dawes welcomed the internet security bill as a way to enable the watchdog to better regulate big tech companies, while also acknowledging that keeping social networks in check would be a “real challenge”. Dawes also suggested that some areas of the proposed laws should be stricter.

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