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UK Government accused of ‘watering down’ Online Safety Bill

By Sophie Wingate, PA Political Correspondent

The UK Government has dropped measures to ban “legal but harmful” web content, in what campaigners called a “watering down” of the Online Safety Bill that is “very hard to understand”.

Removing the restrictions marks a more “common sense” approach as they could have led to an “erosion of free speech”, the Culture Secretary said.

Michelle Donelan also argued the axed measures had been an “anchor” holding the much-delayed Bill back.

The ditching of “legal but harmful” measures marks a win for free speech proponents including Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who claimed they would “legislate for hurt feelings”, but it faces criticism from other corners of the Tory party.

Ms Donelan’s predecessor Nadine Dorries warned that women would “kick off” about dropping the duty to remove not only illegal content but also any material named in the legislation as legal but potentially harmful – such as glorification of self-harm or eating disorders.

The former culture secretary, who championed the Bill in its previous form, cited the case of Molly Russell, 14, who killed herself after viewing self-harm content online.

Molly’s father Ian Russell said the changes to the Bill are “very hard to understand”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What we need is the assurance from the Secretary of State that this watering down of the Bill by removing the legal but harmful content is at least boosted in other measures to make it safe for not just young people but for all of us to be online.

“I don’t see how you can see the removal of a whole clause as anything other than a watering down.”

Ms Donelan said the Government is “in essence” introducing “legal but harmful for children” through other provisions in the Bill.

She said protections for children have been strengthened and it would be a “gross misrepresentation” to argue otherwise.

“Nothing is getting watered down or taken out when it comes to children,” she told the programme.

“The legal but harmful aspect was pertaining to adults. Content that is harmful or could hurt children that is not illegal, so is legal, will still be removed under this version of the Bill.

“So the content that Molly Russell saw will not be allowed as a result of this Bill.”

The legislation aims to tackle the “absurd situation” surrounding the enforcement of age limits, Ms Donelan said, with social media firms that fail to bar under-age children from their platforms facing massive fines.

The updates will require tech firms to show how they enforce their own user age limits, and to publish summaries of risk assessments on potential harm to children on their sites and declare details of enforcement action taken against them by Ofcom – the new regulator for the tech sector.

Ofcom can fine social media giants up to 10% of annual turnover if they fail to fulfil policies to tackle racist, homophobic or other content harmful to children.

For adults there will be a greater requirement for firms to provide tools to hide certain content they do not wish to see.

The amended Bill would require platforms to remove illegal content and take down any material that is in breach of its own terms of service.

The Government calls the approach a “triple shield” of online protection which also allows for freedom of speech.

It partly replaces the legal but harmful duties, which would have created a “quasi-legal category” and potentially “stifled” free speech, Ms Donelan said.

She told Sky News: “It had (a) very, very concerning impact, potentially, on free speech.

“There were unintended consequences associated with it. It was really the anchor that was preventing this Bill from getting off the ground.

“It was a creation of a quasi-legal category between illegal and legal. That’s not what a government should be doing. It’s confusing. It would create a different kind of set of rules online to offline in the legal sphere.”

She said the Bill, which has been “a long time coming”, would become law “during this parliamentary session” and would would serve as a “blueprint” for boosting internet safety for countries around the world.

The changes set Ms Donelan on a collision course with Ms Dorries, who recently told the House magazine: “Michelle has been in the job five minutes and does not understand enough about it.

“The women in my party will, for want of a better word, kick off about this.”

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said it was a “major weakening” of the Bill, adding: “Replacing the prevention of harm with an emphasis on free speech undermines the very purpose of this Bill, and will embolden abusers, Covid deniers, hoaxers, who will feel encouraged to thrive online.”

The latest changes come after other updates to the Bill, including criminalising the encouragement of self-harm, “downblousing” and the sharing of pornographic deepfakes.

The Government also confirmed further amendments will be tabled shortly aimed at boosting protections for women and girls online.

The Victim’s Commissioner, Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Children’s Commissioner will be added as statutory consultees to the Bill, meaning that Ofcom must consult them in drafting new codes of conduct tech firms must follow to comply with the Bill.

The Bill is due to return to Parliament next week after being repeatedly delayed.

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