Online Safety Bill - Government has removed vital health misinformation protections

13 December 2022 | Team Full Fact

The Government has removed protections for health misinformation from the Online Safety Bill - Full Fact is calling on MPs to challenge this.

The Government had long promised that the Online Safety Bill would protect us from harm online. And until this recent Government announcement, that included the harms  from online health misinformation.

But those protections have now been stripped from the Bill, and almost all of the harmful health misinformation and disinformation that occurs online will not be covered by the new rules. 

U-turns like this show that the Government has not learned lessons from the last three years, where misinformation and disinformation had a devastating impact during the Covid-19 pandemic, and continues to. 

The Government’s new approach for harms to adults gives platforms free rein on the types of harmful content they have to address in their terms of service. They believe this will protect freedom of speech online, as the proposals ask companies to be consistent in dealing with content that is in breach of their terms of service. Platforms will also need to provide new ‘user empowerment’ tools to help users filter out content that they might find harmful.

But Full Fact doesn’t think this will work in practice. There is no guarantee that companies will decide to address harmful health misinformation on their platforms. And even if they do, how can we ensure that they do so in ways that protect users' free speech?

This approach puts the power, and decisions on our freedom of expression, in the hands of the internet companies rather than Parliament and the independent regulator.

We could very well see a ‘race to the bottom’ on the terms of service as platforms seek to give themselves maximum flexibility to minimise their risk of breaching the new law. This could see harmful misinformation flouris and all of us exposed to harm.

Along with this, the Government has also removed the need for companies to risk assess for any harms that adults might face on their sites. These risk assessments were crucial for the regulator, Ofcom, to know if platforms were properly protecting and empowering their users, as well as the kind of harms that are happening online.

Twitter’s recent decision to no longer enforce its policy on misleading information around Covid-19 shows us why leaving such decisions unregulated leaves users vulnerable. Previously misleading information about Covid-19 on Twitter could be labelled with corrective information and tweets that were severely harmful could be deleted. 

The sudden decision by Twitter, which was not announced to users, gives us an insight into how internet companies can operate and how they may not always make the best decisions to protect their users from harm.

The Online Safety Bill returns to the House of Commons this week. Full Fact is calling on MPs to challenge the Government on their decision. To protect us all from harm, we need the Government to recommit to including health misinformation in the Bill, and to require companies to risk assess for harms to adults on their platforms. 

Without this, all of us will be exposed to harm, including pregnant women seeing misinformation around the safety of vaccines, patients seeing dangerous advice on cancer treatments, or misleading information about emerging infections like Strep A or M Pox, all of which has a real life impact on public health.

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Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.