In recent years, cyber bullying and online abuse have become a widespread issue, and currently there are very limited tools available to those seeking to challenge platforms which allow abusive content. Local authorities have witnessed this in relation to their elected members. On its website the Local Government Association points out that Councillors are “experiencing increasing levels of online intimidation, abuse and threats made against them, which can prevent elected members from representing the communities they serve and undermine public trust in democratic process”.

The Online Safety Bill is intended to tackle issues relating to online content. The bill makes provision for the regulation of certain internet services by Ofcom, and applies to online search services, and ‘user-to-user services’ which allow individuals to share content online. The bill imposes ‘duties of care’ on such services to address illegal content. However, it also imposes duties on providers in relation to the protection of users, rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

It will be interesting to see how these issues are balanced in practice. Under the bill, online platforms would be required to take action against both illegal and legal but harmful content, which potentially could include material about elected officials and officers. Platforms failing under this duty would be liable of fines of up to £18 million or 10% of their annual turnover, whichever is higher. Platforms will also be required to ‘protect content of democratic importance’, in terms of generally permitting free expression of content from a wide diversity of political opinion.

If it becomes law, the Bill would also allow Ofcom to block access to certain websites. It is hoped that once the bill is passed and becomes law, it will provide new ways to tackle cyber bullying and online abuse.

Local Government Forward View 2023

This article is part of Capsticks’ Local Government Forward View 2023. Read the other articles featured in this publication below:

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