Harmful but legal content requirements removed from Online Safety Bill

Posted on: November 29, 2022 by Claire Meadows

Controversial measures which would have required technology companies to take down “legal but harmful content” online have been axed from the Online Safety Bill amid free speech concerns.

Confirming the return of the Bill to the House of Commons next week, Michelle Donelan MP Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said that although the bill will retain protections for children against “legal but harmful” material, technology firms will now instead be required to provide adult users with tools to filter out “legal but harmful” content that they do not wish to see rather than requiring its removal.  Content that could be filtered by adult users includes material glorifying eating disorders, misogyny and other forms of abuse.

Writing in The Telegraph this morning, Donelan said that changes had been made to ensure that adults retained control over what legal speech they wished to see and that technology firms faced multi-million pound fines if they fail to abide by the new rules. The “legal but harmful” requirement had been criticised out of concern that platforms would over-censor and remove material that was contentious rather than harmful. The changes to the bill follow amendments announced in July strengthening journalistic protections including a requirement for platforms to keep news articles up while under review by moderators as well as notifying news publishers and offering a right of appeal before taking any action.

Announcing the news measures today, Donelan said: “Tech companies will have to shield children from a whole range of harmful content – including child sexual abuse, pornography and cyberbullying. If they fail, they will face huge fines of up to 10 per cent of their annual global turnover.

“The “legal but harmful” clauses in the bill, in my view, violated the rights of adults to choose what legal speech they say and see. So I have removed “legal but harmful” in favour of a new system based on choice and freedom.

“Equally, if something is not prohibited in their terms and conditions, tech giants should not be removing it. Platforms will need to be far more transparent about how their algorithms work and, for the first time, users will have the right of appeal. Silicon Valley executives will no longer be able to arbitrarily silence people, nor continue to treat some sections of society differently.”

The Online Safety Bill will return to the House of Commons on Monday 5 December 2022.