The Online Safety Bill is a major piece of legislation that has significant potential to change the way we communicate online for the better. It could be the UK’s answer to the EU’s Digital Services Act, reigning in the damage to democracy, social well-being, and public discourse that big tech platforms have allowed to continue for years. However, in its current form it falls far short of that mark.
A central issue is that the bill’s provisions to protect freedom of expression are simply not strong enough. In its current form, the bill depends on a number of regulatory exemptions that would give free reign to some of the most pervasive types of harmful content – leaving paid advertising, media and news publisher content, and content of “democratic importance” completely out of scope. This is a non-solution, and means freedom of expression safeguards are not operating on a level playing field – that already privileged entities, such as the press and politicians, are likely to be afforded greater freedoms by platforms than ordinary people. These exemptions could actually mean that the OSB makes the bill less safe than before. Instead, general protections for freedom of speech should be strengthened greatly and applied equally to all users.