The UK’s new Online Safety Bill is a massive change, heralding a new digital age that is safer for users. Tech giants and websites will be held to account, and they don’t have to be UK based to face the enormous consequences. This will affect photographers and photography websites around the world.
The UK is putting through Parliament a new bill that will completely change the way the internet works, making it safer for everyone, especially for children and vulnerable people. It looks as if this won’t just affect websites hosted in the UK, but all those that allow their content to be viewable there.
Governments around the world are watching to see how this will work, and the adoption of similar laws in other countries is likely to follow. The new laws written into the bill will put the onus on website owners to have effective controls in place that restrict harmful content, including hate speech, pornography, and violence, and limit people’s exposure to it. At the same time, it is designed to protect freedom of speech.
The government say that the bill has five policy objectives:
- to increase user safety online
- to preserve and enhance freedom of speech online
- to improve law enforcement’s ability to tackle illegal content online
- to improve users’ ability to keep themselves safe online
- to improve society’s understanding of the harm landscape
It will be the service providers’ responsibility to protect the public, and they can be fined up to 10% of their global revenue, or up to £18 million GBP (approximately $23.5 million USD) for failing in their duty of care to their users. Senior managers of the companies will also be criminally liable if their businesses fail to meet the requirements of the bill.
Those punishments are significant deterrents. Consequently, one can expect the big tech companies that recognize that other governments will soon follow suit are already looking at how they can comply with the new regulations when they are launched.
This is, of course, aimed mainly at the big players like Meta (Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, etc), Alphabet (Google and its subsidiaries), and ByteDance (TikTok). But it looks as if it will also apply to smaller websites too, including 500px, Only Fans, Twitter, Reddit, Gala, VSCO, Petapixel, and Fstoppers. It may even apply to your blog and maybe Squarespace or WordPress too if they host your site.
Because the Internet evolves so rapidly, the bill’s framework is designed to be quickly adapted to meet new threats. It has been constantly added to since its inception; when it was first drafted, TikTok did not exist. Even now, as the metaverse rapidly grows, discussions are underway for that to be included in the law. I have written to my member of Parliament to lobby the inclusion of certain deep fake images that are used to undermine democracy or cause harm to individuals, such as using AI to superimpose victims’ faces onto pornography.
If website owners are hosting harmful content and not putting controls in place, such as age verification for accessing pornography, then they will be committing a criminal offense and subject to punitive action. The law also forbids having breadcrumbs that lead to harmful or illegal content.
This bill is also making it a criminal offense for businesses to destroy evidence and for obstructing the UK’s regulator, Ofcom.
I realize that in America, this will shock some. Freedom of speech to many there seems to mean the freedom to say anything. On the other side of the Atlantic, there is a different approach, and the laws in the UK and Europe on hate speech are much tougher. Protection of other human rights and personal safety outdoes freedom of speech; just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.
Verbally abusing or discriminating against those with protected status, (i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation) is a criminal offense in the UK and European countries. Under this new law, instead of it being only the people making hateful comments that are committing a crime, those websites that allow it in posts or comments will be liable. The new law goes beyond that. Content that is harmful but not illegal, such as promoting suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders, will be criminalized too.
The internet has transformed our lives for the better. It’s connected us and empowered us. But on the other side, tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platforms. Instead, they have been left to mark their own homework.We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age. If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms.
– Nadine Dorries, Digital Secretary
Consequently, we can expect sites accessible in the UK that allow individuals to post comments that include misogyny and racism, something that happens in the comments sections of some photographic sites, to suffer the force of the law.
No doubt, there are a small number of the worst offenders thinking that they are not in the UK and that they will be protected by their nation. Indeed, there are currently no reciprocal enforcement agreements between the US and the UK. However, there are extradition agreements with most other countries in the world. So, in effect, offenders in the USA will be imprisoned in their own country for fear of extradition to face trial in the UK if they leave it. Furthermore, as other countries adopt similar laws, greater pressure will be placed on the US to impose parallel restrictions to protect their citizens too.
Larger companies will also be looking at the sanctions placed on Putin and his oligarch supporters following the ongoing illegal war in Ukraine and the atrocities being inflicted on the people there. These sanctions have included the confiscation and freezing of assets. One can assume that similar sanctions will be put in place for tech companies that fail to comply. In the long-term, one can expect that countries that shelter and permit offenders to post such content will also be sanctioned.
The new measures also clamp down on anonymous trolls. In the UK recently, one anonymous troll attacked a TV presenter on Twitter, was caught, and had to pay the victim a six-figure sum. That troll, despite hiding behind a false ID, was found out. The latest forensic investigative methods mean that cowardly trolls can no longer hide behind fake personas, and civil actions for defamation will now be backed up by criminal law.
The bill hopes to balance these restrictions by strengthening people’s rights and allowing freedom of expression online too. It will make sure that social media companies are not removing legal free speech. UK users here will have a right of appeal if they believe a post was unfairly removed. Social media firms must also both protect journalism and democratic political debate that takes place on their platforms.
An exemption from the law will be in place for genuine news content. However, most photography sites will probably not fall into the news category.
Content providers may need to use more effective tools for content moderation, and learning algorithms are able to filter out offending content. It does require content hosts to do more than rely on users to report abuse. However, that doesn’t mean supporters of online communities should stop helping moderate content as you hopefully do now.
So, how does this affect the individual photographer? Firstly, most photographers are good, kind, honest people who object to the kind of behavior that this law will criminalize, so it will be welcomed. Here in the UK, where I am based, we will benefit by having a safer environment in which to work. With luck, that will have a knock-on effect in other countries that will be strengthened when others adopt similar laws. Life is going to become more difficult for the trolls that have found a haven on photography websites, which is a good thing. Finally, attacking people from behind fake identities will hopefully become a thing of the past.