The Online Safety Act and Misinformation: What you need to know

  • What is the Online Safety Act?

    The Online Safety Act brings in new rules for internet companies to make sure their users are protected from harm that can take place on their platforms, including tackling and removing illegal material online, and better protecting children. The UK is one of the first in the world to regulate internet companies in this way.

    Ofcom is now the regulator for online safety. Over the next year and beyond Ofcom will consult on regulation and develop the regulation. After the regulation has been implemented Ofcom will continue to oversee these changes and, when relevant, sanction companies that do not follow the new rules. 

    How did Full Fact campaign to change the Online Safety Bill?

    The Online Safety 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 debated what was in the Bill and voted on amendments to change it at various stages before the legislation received Royal Assent on 26 October 2023.

    Full Fact worked with MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum to scrutinise the Online Safety Bill and campaign for change. We helped to table amendments that would better protect us all from harmful health misinformation, to improve freedom of speech, and to end internet companies' ability to make unaccountable decisions for UK internet users from offices on the other side of the world.

    Full Fact was instrumental in making sure that Ofcom’s media literacy duties were updated to include social media and search platforms. This means that Ofcom will be required to help the public establish the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of information online, and to understand how to better protect themselves from misinformation.

    Full Fact also campaigned to include protections from health misinformation in the Online Safety Bill. We did originally secure a commitment from the Government to address online health misinformation, but they reneged on this promise. Despite campaigning by Full Fact, leading health charities and Peers in the House of Lords the Government didn’t listen and leaves the public with no protections in the new regulations.

    Does the Online Safety Act do enough to protect us from harmful misinformation? 

    Bad information ruins lives. The Online Safety Act should have been a pivotal moment in the way we tackle the harms caused by misinformation. However, the final Act falls short of the Government’s original aim of making the UK the safest place to be online. 

    There is no credible plan to tackle the harms from online misinformation in the Online Safety Act and this continues to leave the public vulnerable and exposed to online harms. The only references to misinformation in the Act are about setting up a committee to advise Ofcom and changes to Ofcom’s media literacy policy.

    The Act does not address health misinformation, which was so harmful during the Covid-19 pandemic. It also does not set out any new provisions to tackle election disinformation (unless it is a foreign interference offence), nor misinformation that happens during ‘information incidents’ when information spreads quickly online, such as during terror attacks. The Online Safety Act also does not extend to most harms from the kind of generative AI misinformation we have seen increase in recent months.

    Does the Online Safety Act protect freedom of expression online?

    The Government’s approach to protecting freedom of expression online means that internet companies will have to decide what content is not allowed on their platforms, display this in their terms of service, and apply a consistent approach in how they manage content that is in breach of their terms of service.

    However, there is a lack of regulatory oversight for what companies include in their terms of service and how they will address it. This will not prevent misinformation from spreading, nor will it protect freedom of expression.

    Will Full Fact continue to campaign to tackle misinformation?

    Full Fact has long campaigned for regulation that tackles misinformation and protects freedom of expression online and will continue to do so now that the Online Safety Act has become law. This includes policy relating to new generative AI, health misinformation, and the upcoming general election.

    Our first priority is working to influence Ofcom as it consults on and develops the regulation, including the Advisory Committee on Disinformation and Misinformation, and on the new media literacy measures. We will monitor internet companies' efforts to comply with the rules and work to make sure Ofcom is effectively running the new regime.

    Full Fact will also continue its programme of annual reports on the UK’s information environment, continuing the success of our 2022 report, Tackling Online Misinformation in an Open Society and 2023 report Informed citizens: Addressing bad information in a healthy democracy.