The Online Safety Bill and Misinformation: What you need to know
What is the Online Safety Bill?
The Online Safety Bill will bring in new rules for internet companies to make sure their users are protected from harm that can take place on their platforms. It makes Ofcom the regulator to oversee these changes. This law will be one of the first in the world to regulate internet companies in this way.
As well as tackling and removing illegal material online, and better protecting young people, the Bill sets out how the biggest internet companies with the highest risk and reach will have to tackle harmful content for adults, content of democratic importance and journalistic content.
Companies will be required to risk assess their services for harm, ensure they mitigate against it, and could face sanctions and penalties if they do not.
The Bill was introduced to Parliament on 17 March 2022 (following a draft version which was scrutinised by a Joint Committee of Parliamentarians). During the rest of the year MPs and Peers will debate what’s in the Bill and vote on amendments to change it before the legislation is finalised and regulation begins.
Does the Online Safety Bill do enough to protect us from harm?
Bad information ruins lives. The Online Safety Bill should be a pivotal moment in the way we tackle the harms caused by mis- and disinformation and safeguard freedom of expression.
As it stands, the Bill falls short of the Government’s aim to make the UK the safest place to be online and leaves the public vulnerable and exposed to online harms.
There is currently no credible plan to tackle the harms from online mis- and disinformation through the Bill. Presently, the only reference to misinformation in the Online Safety Bill is about setting up a committee to advise Ofcom.
The Government intends to set out what it thinks is ‘legal but harmful’ content later on in secondary legislation. But right now this will only involve making the biggest internet companies decide what kind of harms are allowed on their platforms, and that they then set out how they will tackle them. It is not clear if this will include harmful mis- and disinformation, including health mis- and disinformation (which we know from the pandemic undermines public health).
The Bill also sets out no new provisions to tackle election disinformation, and it has scrapped its previous proposals for a new media literacy duty for Ofcom, which could have helped to build everyone’s resilience to bad information.
How can the Online Safety Bill be strengthened to protect us from bad information?
In our report, Tackling Online Misinformation in an Open Society, Full Fact raised concerns about the previous draft of the legislation and its ability to effectively tackle the harms from bad information online, while safeguarding freedom of expression. We set out a ten point plan for how the Bill can counter bad information with good information and protect free speech, by promoting media literacy, challenging deceptive behaviour online, and enforcing transparency of government and internet company measures.
Important changes must be made by Parliament to the Online Safety Bill to protect us all from harm:
- Set out stronger provisions in legislation for tackling harmful mis- and disinformation online. This includes more clarity on priority harms, making sure that Ofcom takes a lead in openly identifying and addressing information vacuums and has an active role in coordinating responses to information incidents. The Bill should also bring in an agreed way to deal with disinformation campaigns during UK elections.
- Protect freedom of expression when tackling harmful misinformation online. This includes ensuring that internet firms prioritise the promotion of good information over restricting content, and ending ‘censorship-by-proxy’ by making government attempts to influence online content transparent.
- Strengthen the legislation to help everyone be more resilient to bad information. This includes a new media literacy duty fit for the digital era, and ensuring that Ofcom sets out a plan for delivering it, as well as giving the regulator responsibility for researching the harms caused by mis- and disinformation, and independent researchers the access they need to help better address those harms.
What is Full Fact doing to make sure bad information is tackled in the Online Safety Bill?
Full Fact has long campaigned for online regulation that tackles misinformation and protects freedom of expression online.
When the Bill is debated and voted on in Parliament, we will be working with MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum to campaign for changes that will ensure the Bill better protects us all from harm, now and in the future.
With proper scrutiny and improvement this vital legislation can limit the damage caused by bad information. With the right changes, it could end internet companies' ability to make unaccountable decisions for UK internet users from offices on the other side of the world.
How can I get involved?
This legislation will impact each one of us, but there is only a short window of time to improve it. Your support can help to make sure harmful misinformation is tackled in the Online Safety Bill.
You can ask your MP today to use their vote in the House of Commons to make sure the Online Safety Bill has stronger provisions to protect us all from harmful mis- and disinformation.
Where can I find out more about the Online Safety Bill?
- Read our Parliamentary Briefing: Report Stage of the Online Safety Bill – July 2022
- Read our Parliamentary Briefing: Committee Stage of the Online Safety Bill – May/June 2022
- Read the Full Fact Report 2022 - Tackling online misinformation in an open society—what law and regulation should do
- Read our latest press release on the introduction of the Online Safety Bill
- Read the Online Safety Bill