UK’s Online Safety Bill Gets Ridiculous: Includes Jail Time For Tech CEOs

from the getting-it-all-wrong dept

For years now we’ve written about the problems of the UK’s latest (in a long line) of attempts to “Disneyfy” the internet with its Online Safety Bill. While the bill had faced some hurdles along the way, made worse by the ever-rotating Prime Minister position last year, there was talk last week that some more hardline conservatives wanted to jack up the criminal penalties in the bill for social media sites that don’t magically protect the children. And, while new Prime Minister Rishi Sinak had pushed back against this, in the end, he caved in.

Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary, has accepted changes to the Online Safety Bill that will make senior managers at tech firms criminally liable for persistent breaches of their duty of care to children.

One of the worst aspects of the bill in earlier forms — possible punishment for legal speech, if deemed harmful — remains out of the bill, but that’s little comfort based on these new criminal additions.

Tech platforms will also have a duty of care to keep children safe online. This will involve preventing children from accessing harmful content and ensuring that age limits on social media platforms – the minimum age is typically 13 – are enforced. Platforms will have to explain in their terms of service how they enforce these age limits and what technology they use to police them.

In relation to both of these duties, tech firms will have to carry out risk assessments detailing the threats their services might pose in terms of illegal content and keeping children safe. They will then have to explain how they will mitigate those threats – for example through human moderators or using artificial intelligence tools – in a process that will be overseen by Ofcom, the communications regulator.

That is, this is more or less California’s terrible law (which we were told was modeled on existing UK law, which was clearly not true if they’re now implementing this new law). Anyhow, the criminal liability part is absolutely ridiculous:

Even before the government conceded to backbench rebels on Monday, tech executives faced the threat of a two-year jail sentence under the legislation, if they hinder an Ofcom investigation or a request for information.

Now, they also face the threat of a two-year jail sentence if they persistently ignore Ofcom enforcement notices telling them they have breached their duty of care to children. In the face of tech company protests about criminal liability, the government is stressing that the new offence will not criminalise executives who have “acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way” with their duties.

It’s one thing to say we won’t criminalize you for acting in good faith, but it’s another thing to have your freedom on the docket and have to litigate that you acted in good faith. And, these are government officials we’re talking about. They’re not exactly known for acting in “good faith” when demonizing tech companies.

Wikipedia has already expressed reasonably grave concerns about all of this.

Again, there are so many problems with the setup here that it’s difficult to know where to start. First off, as we’ve discussed, the narrative about the internet being harmful to children appears to be massively overstated, and there’s actual evidence that it’s actually helpful to way more children than who find it harmful. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look to reduce the harms that seem to impact some (because of course we should!) but these bills are often written in a way that assumes all harm that comes to children is from social media and that there are no redeeming qualities to social media. And both of those things are false.

Second, if you have to do special protections “for the children,” you’re almost certainly leading to kids being put at even greater risk, because the whole framework forces websites to do age verification, which is a highly intrusive, privacy-diminishing effort that actually is harmful to children in and of itself (i.e., this law almost certainly violates the law, because the authors took no “duty of care” to make sure it protects children).

So, now, all children will be tracked and monitored online, exposing their private information to potential breach and, even worse, teaching them that constant surveillance is the norm.

As for the companies, the risk of not just huge fines, but now criminal liability will mean that all of the incentives are to over-block, and not allow anything even remotely controversial. This is not how you teach children to be good, contributing members of society. It’s how you make it so children are kept in the dark about how the world works, how to make difficult choices, and how to respond when they’re actually put in a dangerous scenario.

It is, again, exactly how the Great Firewall of China initially worked: not by telling service providers what to block, but making it known that any “mistakes” would lead to very strict punishment. The end result is massive over-blocking. And that means all sorts of useful content will get buried. Because if you’re an executive for one of these companies and you’re facing a literal prison sentence if you make the wrong choices, your focus is going to be on being super aggressive in blocking content, even if the actual evidence suggests doing so creates more harm than good.

Just as an example, there are plenty of stories about content being shared about eating disorders. Almost certainly, under the Online Safety Bill, most sites will work to hide all of that content. The problem is that this has been tried… and it backfires. As we covered in a case study, when sites like Instagram did this, kids figured out code language to talk about it all anyway, and (more importantly), it was found that having these groups more open allowed people to better come in and help kids recognize that they had a problem, and to get them help. Simply hiding all of the content doesn’t do that.

Once again, this could mean that kids will be put in greater danger, all because a bunch of prudish, stuffy politicians have no idea how people actually act, or how the internet actually works.

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Comments on “UK’s Online Safety Bill Gets Ridiculous: Includes Jail Time For Tech CEOs”

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47 Comments
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That One Guy (profile) says:

CEO: Prison time, less profits from banning the UK, choices choices...

Any remotely intelligent tech company: Oh we risk jail time should minors run across the wrong thing on our site? Great, from this day forward anyone below the age limit is explicitly banned from using out platform/service, no exceptions.

The page telling them this will also tell them who to blame for suddenly being kicked off of every platform online, so have fun with that fallout UK parents and politicians.

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

if you’re an executive for one of these companies and you’re facing a literal prison sentence if you make the wrong choices, your focus is going to be on being super aggressive in blocking content, even if the actual evidence suggests doing so creates more harm than good

Change “a literal prison sentence” to “legal liability” and this could easily apply to what would happen in the wake of 230 being changed/revoked. No company or service worth a good god’s damn is going to put its own figurative ass on the line for the speech of others.

Anonymous Coward says:

Platforms will have to explain in their terms of service how they enforce these age limits and what technology they use to police them.

Hi. We will use the same technology the government is using: If we find your sub-13 year-old using our site or service, we will sue your fucking ass, and the ass of any relevant party, including, but not limited to, the government, if they are the child’s legal guardian, and the child themselves, if no other responsible party can be produced.

Have a nice day.

Anonymous Coward says:

The bill is such an unworkable mess that it is likely to collapse under its own weight just look at the last UK age verification law that was delayed over and over again until it was quietly scraped.

There also the fact that the UK is about to enter a recession meaning Ofcom (who been tasked with getting up and running) is likely to be super underfunded and unable to enforce 90% of the bill.

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Matthew M Bennett says:

Love the double talk here

US gov tells twitter (and FB) what to censor, everything is fine, all just doing the lord’s work. UK wants to do the same thing (but granted, much more officially) and it’s all super monstrous.

To be clear I think it’s all monstrous and the UK’s lack of anything resembling real free speech is super fucked but it’s the fact that you keep on pretending it was all fine when our government did it with twitter that really pisses me off.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2

The issue isn’t all the drivel you’ve spouted.

It’s about you coming here day after day, screaming, gaslighting and demanding Mike stop criticizing Elon Musk, and by extension, the Republican Party or else you’ll continue on your one man harassmant campaign. And that’s on top of your bigoted language, sheer denial of just about everything to shill for a white supremacist position, and at least one implied physical threat.

I doubt you’re a reasonable person. Your continued behavior is proof of that. And you’ve repeatedly made it clear you won’t leave until either your demands are met or Mike finally bans you.

And somehow, you’ll find a way to harass this site even when banned.

Don’t cry about unfairness when you came in here looking for a fight.

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bhull242 (profile) says:

Re:

US gov tells twitter (and FB) what to censor, everything is fine, all just doing the lord’s work.

They didn’t. Again, no consequences for failure or laws were mentioned at all in the FBI’s correspondence with Twitter, nor were any consequences imposed by the government. Also, the US gov explicitly said that Twitter could do whatever it wanted with those accounts, including nothing at all.

UK wants to do the same thing (but granted, much more officially) and it’s all super monstrous.

It’s not at all the same thing because consequences for failure are clearly stated in the UK bill, but none are even implied in the Twitter Files whatsoever. Additionally, the FBI didn’t suggest any action (or, if so, which) Twitter ought to take, while the UK is explicitly demanding actions be taken.

Even setting aside for the moment whether what the US government did is or should be legal under the 1A, to say that that is remotely the same as this is absurd.

[I]t’s the fact that you keep on pretending it was all fine when our government did it with twitter that really pisses me off.

“Legal” or “constitutional” ≠ “fine”, and again, they really aren’t the same thing.

The key distinction here is consequences, be they clearly implied or explicit and be they actual or threatened. Based on the Twitter Files, no (even potential) consequences for Twitter’s actions or inaction were referenced at all regarding the listed accounts, no law or potential legal ramifications for anyone was ever mentioned either to give implicit threats, and, despite Twitter only taking action on 40% of the listed accounts, Twitter did not receive any actual consequences or later threats for their inaction (or even positive consequences for their action in those 40% of cases). There is no evidence of any even attempt at coercion there, let alone actual coercion. There is also no evidence that Twitter (or any other recipient) perceived it as coercion. Without any coercive elements in evidence, it’s not illegal infringement of free speech under US law.

Contrast this with the UK law, which demands action under a law and with threats of at least potential legal consequences for failure being specifically and explicitly stated. There simply is no getting around the fact that the UK law is coercive. It is also much more obviously coercive than the FBI communications in the Twitter Files even if you think the FBI was also being coercive. That, in itself, makes it quite different. Saying “Be a shame if something happened to this,” is qualitatively different from “Do this, or you might face this specific consequence.” (Not that the FBI was even doing the former or something analogous; I’m just saying your own logic is flawed here.)

PaulT (profile) says:

Re:

“US gov tells twitter (and FB) what to censor”

…and Twitter are free to ignore what they tell them, as they have done many times.

“UK wants to do the same thing (but granted, much more officially) and it’s all super monstrous.”

The UK has many issues relating to censorship in its history, and you’re not doing it any favours by making false comparisons to private companies in the US doing something different. A sensible person would be stating how it’s good that a US company can ignore such demands whereas the UK version might have more legal weight, but instead you choose to misrepresent what’s happening in the US.

“To be clear I think it’s all monstrous and the UK’s lack of anything resembling real free speech is super fucked but it’s the fact that you keep on pretending it was all fine when our government did it with twitter that really pisses me off.”

You’re correct, those hallucinations are a problem.

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Matthew M Bennett says:

Love the double talk here

US gov tells twitter (and FB) what to censor, everything is fine, all just doing the lord’s work. UK wants to do the same thing (but granted, much more officially) and it’s all super monstrous.

To be clear I think it’s all monstrous and the UK’s lack of anything resembling real free speech is super fucked but it’s the fact that you keep on pretending it was all fine when our government did it with twitter that really pisses me off.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

genghis_uk (profile) says:

Re:

Nothing would please me more than the UK being locked out of Twitter and Facebook over this. Something that would highlight the reality rather than our press all singing from the ‘save the children’ hymn sheet.

Molly Russell and other high profile cases have removed any consideration about protecting adults from privacy intrusion – it’s all about children online. I’m sure Molly’s father would not let her wander around London at night, why was she allowed to wander alone on the internet?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

And the problem is this bill would strip privacy from BOTH.

But the worst part is the way it’s worded it’ll apply to any UK user running a Mastodon instance. Also I’m not sure about big tech companies (it really boils down to how much they value the UK market as opposed to say the EU).

But also this bill will be a death nail to any non-big tech company who likely will have to close up shop simply because they will not be able to comply with everything.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“But the worst part is the way it’s worded it’ll apply to any UK user running a Mastodon instance”

Indeed. All Tory bills relating to these subjects are terrible (and it’s usually Tories), but they almost invariably have unintended consequences. Well, “unintended”, sometimes they’re idiotic, sometimes they’re designed to ensure that an old Eton schoolmate or other friend who can profit will do so at the expense of the public. But, if the law as written will damage innocent Mastodon nodes and profit others with international contracts, it’s probably not unintentional.

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