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. The Bill aims to tackle and remove illegal material online, and better protect young people. 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.
The Bill was introduced to Parliament on 17 March 2022 (following a draft version which was scrutinised by a Joint Committee of Parliamentarians). MPs and Peers will continue to debate what’s in the Bill and vote on amendments to change it before the legislation is finalised this year 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 misinformation and disinformation and safeguard freedom of expression.
However, 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 misinformation 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.
Last year the Government had planned to include health misinformation in their indicative list of priority harmful content that companies would have been required to address in their terms of service. But they have reneged on this promise and, late last year, dropped the adult safety duties and protections from the Bill.
The Government’s plans to protect free speech online will now leave it up to the internet companies to decide what content is covered in their terms of service and then just apply those terms of service consistently. But this puts decisions on our freedom of expression in the hands of platforms rather than Parliament and the independent regulator.
The Bill also sets out no new provisions to tackle election disinformation (unless it is a foreign interference offence), 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 2022 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:
- Adult risk assessments and transparent reporting requirements for Category 1 services must be put back into the Bill. Both are essential for identifying harm on their platforms and setting out clear policies on those risks in their terms of service.
- The Government has reneged on its promise to include protections for health misinformation in the Bill. This must be addressed so that platforms are required to have a clear policy on harmful health misinformation in their terms of service.
- The Bill should be amended so that Ofcom has a new statutory duty on media literacy, a strategy for delivering on it, and reports on progress made. The largest platforms must be required to promote media literacy and the safe use of the service to their users.
- The Advisory Committee on Disinformation and Misinformation must be enhanced, to oversee Ofcom’s research, produce reports, and advise Ofcom on Codes of Practice.
- The Bill should be strengthened to protect freedom of expression online, by prioritising the promotion of good information over restricting content, and by introducing a transparent framework for Government efforts to influence platforms’ content moderation decisions.
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.
As the Bill is debated and voted on in Parliament, we work 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.
Where can I find out more about the Online Safety Bill?
- Watch Full Fact CEO Will Moy give evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Online Safety Bill
- Read the Full Fact Report 2022 - Tackling online misinformation in an open society—what law and regulation should do
- Read our Parliamentary Briefing: Tackling online misinformation in an open society
- Read our press release on the introduction of the Online Safety Bill
- Read the Online Safety Bill