I am glad that the Government has strengthened the Online Safety Bill since it was first published in draft form.
As part of this, new communications offences will strengthen protections from harmful online behaviours such as deliberately sharing dangerous disinformation about hoax Covid-19 treatments.
The Bill will introduce a harm-based communications offence to capture communications sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse, including when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm.
Although there is an existing offence in the Communications Act that captures knowingly false communications, I am encouraged that this new offence raises the current threshold of criminality. It covers false communications deliberately sent to inflict harm, such as hoax bomb threats, as opposed to misinformation where people are unaware what they are sending is false or genuinely believe it to be true. For example, if an individual posted on social media encouraging people to inject antiseptic to cure themselves of coronavirus, a court would have to prove that the individual knew this was not true before posting it.
As the internet becomes an increasingly integral part of our daily lives, I believe it is imperative that action is undertaken to ensure users are protected online from harmful activity and content and I, therefore, welcome these new measures.
I am encouraged that the Bill will ensure that Category 1 companies (the largest online platforms with the widest reach including the most popular social media platforms) must address content harmful to adults that falls below the threshold of a criminal offence. As such, Category 1 companies will have a duty to carry risk assessments on the types of legal harms against adults which could arise on their services. They will have to set out clearly in terms of service how they will deal with such content and enforce these terms consistently. If companies intend to remove, limit or allow particular types of content they will have to say so.
I would like to reassure you that work is has been undertaken to ensure misinformation and disinformation is correctly defined and does not inhibit freedom of speech. The Bill places an obligation on Ofcom, the UK’s independent communications regulator, to form an advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation. The committee will be tasked with providing advice to Ofcom about how providers of regulated user-to-user services should deal with misinformation and disinformation on their services. Furthermore, the codes of practice, which outline the systems and processes that companies need to adopt to fulfil their duty of care will be consulted on by Ofcom, ensuring the measures are proportionate.
The Secretary of State may give Ofcom directions in circumstances where they consider there is a threat to the health or safety of the public, or to national security. For example, the Secretary of State could issue a direction during a pandemic to require Ofcom to give priority to ensuring that health misinformation and disinformation is effectively tackled when exercising its media literacy function and to require service providers to report on the action they are taking to address this issue.