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What is the Online Safety Bill? A Quick Guide

What is the Online Safety Bill? A Quick Guide


What is the Online Safety Bill? A Quick Guide


There has been a lot of discussion in the media over the past few months about the UK Government's landmark Online Safety Bill. First drafted in May 2021, it has undergone a great deal of scrutiny, before a new amended version was finally introduced to Parliament this month. But what is the Online Safety Bill? Here is a quick guide to the UK's proposed new world-leading online safety laws, and what this Bill means for children, parents and schools.


What is the Online Safety Bill?


Following the previous Online Harms White Paper published in 2019, the new Online Safety Bill in the UK is designed to improve internet safety and help make the United Kingdom one of the safest places to be online. Its aim is to safeguard internet users, especially children, from harmful and illegal content, restrict underage activity on harmful sites, and penalise social website companies for the spread of harmful messages, while protecting freedom of speech.


Although it has a way to go until it becomes law, the updated Online Safety Bill introduces stricter proposals aimed at protecting children and young people against online risks, such as being exposed to adult content and misinformation. These risks have been identified as online behaviour that can cause harm to a person, physically or emotionally. Such behaviour could involve harmful information being spread to, or about, a person or group of people.


This is the first bill of its kind, and it will have global implications, as it holds multinational tech giants, such as Meta Platforms and Twitter, accountable and responsible for the safety, welfare and wellbeing of its users.


In practise, harsher penalties, including large fines and blocked access to sites, will be given to websites and companies that are enabling the spread of harmful content and messages. To ensure this is upheld, and to make prosecution easier, the Government has categorised online harms into three areas:


  • Harms with clear legal definition (e.g. child sexual abuse)
  • Harms with less clear legal definition (e.g. coercive behaviour or promoting self-harm)
  • Underage exposure to harmful but legal content (e.g. access to pornography)


Why was the Online Safety Bill created?


According to Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the intention of the 'world-leading' Online Safety Bill in the UK is to 'protect children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online'.


There is no doubt that the new digital age has changed our ability to connect and communicate with each other, as well as express our views widely. However, tech companies behind popular social websites in particular have great influence on the information that is communicated online. Therefore, it was deemed that stricter rules were needed to stop the era of self-regulation, and ensure these online facilitators were held accountable for any harm, abuse and criminal behaviour that is spread through their platforms. Ofcom, the communications regulator, will now be given greater powers to oversee and enforce the online safety regime laid out in the Bill.


Who does the Online Safety Bill apply to?


The Online Safety Bill is an attempt to properly regulate social websites under uniform legislation, namely companies whose websites feature user-generated content such as images, videos and comments, or that facilitate messaging, comments and forums. This includes social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, video sharing sites, pornography sites, and search engines. Currently, there is no explicit mention of online or video game platforms, but they are within the scope of the new legislation and will be expected to uphold their duty of care.


The requirements will be different depending on the size, resources and risk level of each company, but generally they will be required to:


  • Tackle and remove illegal material, particularly relating to terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse
  • Protect young people from legal but harmful content (e.g. harassment, abuse or advocating self-harm)
  • Include terms and conditions about what is and is not acceptable on their site
  • Introduce 'empowerment tools' to allow users to control who and what they see
  • Prevent fraudulent adverts being published or hosted on their site


The repercussions for such companies if they don’t abide to the new legislation include a fine of up to 10% of their worldwide turnover and/or blocking them from being accessible in the UK.


How does the Online Safety Bill protect children?


With its focus on keeping young people safe online, the new laws included in the Online Safety Bill will force companies to look at risks and take action against anything that threatens the safety of children. Companies will be required to protect children and young people by:


  • Assessing whether their site is likely to be accessed by children, and if so, protect children from harmful and inappropriate content
  • Preventing access to any adult content that is harmful for children (e.g. pornography)
  • Using age verification technologies to prove the age of individuals viewing pornographic content and accessing adult sites
  • Protecting children against online harms such as cyberbullying and grooming
  • Making it easy for children and parents to report any harmful content they encounter, and taking appropriate action
  • Reporting any child sexual exploitation and abuse content to the National Crime Agency


How does the Online Safety Bill support parents and teachers?


The Online Safety Bill has clearly stated how the new legislation aims to keep children safe online. But what does this mean for parents and teachers?


Providing online safety guidance for parents


Parents will be pleased to hear that tech companies are to be held accountable for the content children are exposed to, but the Online Safety Bill addresses the importance of 'media literacy' too. In the Bill, this is defined as "an understanding of the nature and characteristics of material published by means of the electronic media" and "an awareness and understanding of the processes by which such material is selected or made available for publication."


In other words, the Online Safety Bill addresses the need for children and parents to become empowered to make safe choices online - and education is the key to this. It proposes that Internet service providers and mobile phone operators offer parental control tools, age verification, and clear and easily accessible information and guidance about online safety at the point of purchase and beyond, that will empower customers to protect their children from online risks and dangers.


Teaching media literacy in schools


The Online Safety Bill supports the idea that teaching media literacy to children in school is a crucial way to help them navigate and deal with online risks, and become good digital citizens. Plans of how the Government intend to do this have been laid out in their Media Literacy Strategy, which complements the Bill. For teachers, the potential harms and risks identified will need to be included in their teaching of online safety, which is also reflected in the new RSHE (Relationships, Sex & Health Education) curriculum, introduced in 2020.


How can Natterhub support parents and teachers?


In line with the media literacy aims of the Online Safety Bill, Natterhub's mission is to teach children aged 5-11 to be safe and kind digital citizens, and help them navigate the digital world through 'doing'. Natterhub's experiential online safety learning platform for primary schools looks and feels just like social media, teaching children about all aspects of online safety through more than 350 ready-made lessons. Aligned with the DfE national curriculum and the Education for a Connected World framework, Natterhub's lessons cover:


  • relationships with technology
  • building digital resilience
  • the importance of online kindness
  • digital wellbeing


It's a great way to support online safety teaching in line with Government guidelines, and can take the time and effort out of your media literacy lesson planning.


In addition, parents can find a wealth of information to help keep their children safe online on Natterhub's Rate My YouTuber and Platform Advice pages, as well as many guides and resources on digital parenting, offering advice and support on a range of media literacy and e-safety topics.


We hope you found our quick guide to the Online Safety Bill helpful. We'll keep you updated as it makes its way through Parliament on its journey to becoming law.



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