After a five month delay, the Online Safety Bill is poised to return to discussion in Parliament.
Three years in the making, the Bill, if it sees the light of day, may prove to be the most disruptive and destructive piece of legislation ever to affect the IT industry.
Whilst we’re all agreed that online safety for vulnerable adults and children is essential whilst using the Internet, the Bill has been designed with no thought to practicality, reality, workability or the collateral damage it will cause.
Ostensibly designed to protect adults and children online, the “world leading” Bill is completely unworkable, introducing direct legal responsibility for any content producer on the internet for the actions of users of their service.
This has massive financial and legal implications for every small tech business and startup.
The Bill covers all content available on sites hosted in the UK, or available in the UK from external sites…. or, in other words, everyone. As a site or app owner, you are going to be legally held responsible for any potentially harmful content contributed by your users.
The definition of 'harmful' is contentious, of course. But that’s not the main problem with the Bill. Described as a 'splinternet', the Bill details a number of obligations which any content provider must adhere to.
The Bill comes with three major hurdles for any content provider to jump - risk assessment, administrative overhead and a burden of continuous monitoring. Let’s reiterate - these are legal requirements with the potential risk of fines and/or imprisonment.
The bill details 17 categories of risk assessment which every provider must investigate. For example, your user base, the level of risk of users encountering illegal or harmful content, the level of risk of harm to those users, the number of children accessing your service - by age group - etc.
It’s probably impossible to perform an accurate risk assessment which is compliant with the criteria the Bill specifies. At the same time, you have the responsibility to preserve user rights to privacy and free speech.
Any changes to your content will mean you have to check first with Ofcom, who are the regulators for the Bill.
Talking of Ofcom: the Bill sets out an administrative structure which has to be complied with. Ofcom will charge an annual fee and can demand reports, investigations and public statements to be made if they deem necessary.
Providers are expected to monitor any content which they transmit or store. So not only are you (legally) responsible for any illegal user activity, you have the overhead of monitoring it continuously as well.
The Bill places a financial and operational strain for anyone providing content on the internet. If providers want to stay compliant, they will most likely have to employ specialist advisors - the notes alone for the Bill run to 52,000 words. There will be a need to use specialist monitoring software and, in the case of non-adult users, some form of third party age verification system.
All of this financial and operational burden will severely impact smaller businesses.
What the exact costs will be are difficult to predict. You can be certain that you’ll need to introduce continuous monitoring to your application, but, given the variation in software platforms, the problem becomes one of finding a third party software provider who can supply you with an appropriate monitoring platform or having your application code rewritten to add that functionality.
Factor additional costs in for third party age verification software. Will it work with your site or application? You may think that getting users to abide by stricter terms and conditions may constitute legal protection - will Ofcom see that the same way?
At some point, you may find it necessary to have a chat with a specialised compliance lawyer to ensure your site is following the (highly) complicated OSB guidelines. Lawyers are not cheap, specialist lawyers even less so, and the nightmare scenario is that every functional change to your app which you may have planned will result in an advisory chat with your lawyer again.
There is, as well, a fee to be paid to Ofcom, and at any point, Ofcom may ask you to jump through some expensive hoops, such as extra reporting or meetings.
All of this has “money” written all over it. And also “time and effort”.
Originally devised as an honest attempt to solve the growing problem of online abusive and harmful content on the Internet, the Bill has been hijacked politically to become a vehicle aimed at controlling “big social media” whilst also providing a “British alternative” to existing EU controls.
The result has been a political football which has morphed into a completely unrealistic and unworkable set of requirements which, whilst damaging smaller content providers, will probably strengthen the hand of “big social media” as only they will be able to absorb the costs of such far-stretching requirements.
The one remaining bright spot is that if the Bill does not become law by April 2023, the whole consultative process will have reached a time limit, requiring a complete fresh start from first principles.
Based in South Manchester, Foresight Mobile produces mobile and web apps for a wide range of customers - from startups and entrepreneurs to household names like Levi Strauss and Arm Microprocessor.
If you’re planning a new product, we can advise you on how to remain compliant within the OSB, and if you have an existing business, we can review and report on the compliance of your systems and processes.