The UK government’s controversial Online Safety Bill has finally received Royal Assent and become law, paving the way for the country’s communications regulator to start laying out its legislative agenda.
The bill, which will now be known as the Online Safety Act, aims to keep websites and different types of internet-based services free of illegal and harmful material while defending freedom of expression. It applies to search engines; internet services that host user-generated content, such as social media platforms; online forums; some online games; and sites that publish or display pornographic content.
Royal Assent is the formal process by which the King agrees to make a bill into a law. The bill for the Online Safety Act was approved by Parliament in September.
Ofcom, which has been charged with enforcing the act, has said it will now begin the process of publishing its code of practice, publishing a provisional timeline that details when the requirements would start to come into force.
Once the code of practice has been established, companies that do not comply with the rules could be fined up to £18 million (US$22 million) or 10% of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest.
The publication of these rules will take place over three phases, beginning with the publication of a initial consultation into illegal harms – including child sexual abuse material, terrorist content and fraud – on November 9. This will contain proposals for how services can comply with the illegal content safety duties and draft codes of practice.
Phase two will see a consultation into child safety, pornography, and the protection of women and girls. Due to be published in December, further consultations relating to the child safety duties under the act will follow in the spring of 2024, while those relating to the safety of women and girls are expected by the spring of 2025.
The final phase relates to the publication of transparency reports and offering of “empowerment tools” to give users more control over the content they’re shown, while further proposals, including a draft code of practice on fraudulent advertising and transparency notices, will follow in mid-2025.
"Ofcom is not a censor, and our new powers are not about taking content down. Our job is to tackle the root causes of harm,” said Ofcom's CEO, Dame Melanie Dawes, in comments published alongside the regulator’s proposals. “We will set new standards online, making sure sites and apps are safer by design. Importantly, we'll also take full account of people's rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”