UK government removes ‘legal but harmful’ clause from new online law

The UK government is dropping controversial powers to force internet companies to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content, following a backlash from the tech industry and free speech advocates.

The measure was to be part of the long-awaited online safety bill and would have represented a radical departure from existing global rules that govern some of the world’s biggest tech companies, from Facebook to Google.

The move had been pushed by former Home Secretary Priti Patel among other former ministers, during former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tenure. While the new Conservative administration led by Rishi Sunak intends to press ahead with the legislation, it scrapped the most controversial measure before the bill returns to the Commons on December 5.

The legal but harmful provision will be replaced with new rules for companies to be more transparent about internal content moderation policies, free speech protections and strict laws on removing illegal content, the government said. Monday evening.

The new legislation will still create one of the toughest online regulatory regimes in the world, giving sweeping powers to media regulator Ofcom to investigate and fine internet companies that fail to comply. Tech companies and privacy advocates had waged an intense lobbying campaign to convince the government to water down the legal but harmful clause.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan, who took office in September, said the new bill was now “free from any threat that tech companies or future governments could use the laws as a license to censor legitimate views”.

Tech companies will still need to monitor content that is harmful to children, including bullying and pornographic content, and clarify their age verification processes.

Internet companies will still be required to publish risk assessments and remove illegal content, such as racist abuse. Platforms will also be obliged to report online child sexual abuse to the UK’s National Crime Agency.

Over the past week, the government has added new crimes, including banning content that encourages self-harm or suicide, as well as non-consensual images such as so-called deep pornography, where software publishing is used to create and distribute fake sexualized images. or videos of people without their permission.

The changes come as social media platforms have cut staff due to a slowing economy, raising fears it could impact their ability to moderate content. This month, Twitter laid off more than half of its staff and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, cut its workforce by 13%, while Snapchat owner Snap cut 20% of its employees in September. .

Government figures hope the bill will be passed next spring. Some within the Conservative Party have warned of political fallout if there are further delays in the progress of legislation through parliament.

“There is no appetite in government to quietly get rid of the bill, but there is a danger that the bill will crash by accident,” a former minister said. “There will be a big backlash outside and within parliament if we leave online security unregulated.”

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