Online Safety Bill

Online Safety Bill Briefing Document

To find out the NMA's position on the Online Safety Bill, download our briefing document

The Online Safety Bill is a large piece of legislation designed to crack down on harms propagated by the tech platforms online. The Bill introduces new rules for social media and search engines which will have a duty of care to protect users from harmful content online.

The Bill also introduces named categories of legal but harmful material accessed by adults, likely to include issues such as abuse, harassment, or exposure to content encouraging self-harm or eating disorders. While the overarching aims of the Bill are laudable, concerns have been raised about the impact of the new regime on freedom of speech and journalistic content. It is clear the government’s intention is that content from recognised publishers – both news publishers and broadcasters – must sit firmly outside the regulatory scope of the new regime but more work must be done to ensure this is achieved.

“We must protect news publishers and broadcasters from censorship under the regime and not fall foul of unintended consequences.”

News UK chief operating officer, David Dinsmore

Current situation

The Bill is currently in the House of Lords for further scrutiny by peers.

As it stands, the Bill intends to provide two forms of exemption for news publishers. Firstly, one for news publisher content from some of the duties of care, where that content appears on, or is shared via, in-scope services. Secondly, an exemption for news publishers’ websites (including below the line comments) from the scope of the legislation generally.

However, one of the fundamental issues that risks undermining the news publisher exemption itself is that the Bill does not contain a duty for the platforms not to remove news publisher content. Instead, the Bill creates significant incentives through high penalties to make platforms and search engines err on the side of caution whenever their algorithms encounter content that might put them at risk and to favour a zealous approach to moderating news publisher content. This risks undermining public access to news.

Secondly, despite government’s clear intention that news publisher sites remain out of scope of the Bill, the revised drafting still fails to expressly state that the limited functionality exemption includes “recognised news publishers” which creates an unnecessary hurdle for publishers relying on this exemption. 

What action do we want to see?

The overriding concern for publishers with the Bill is the balance of decision making over editorial content with platforms, who may take judgements through blanket application of algorithms that may not distinguish journalistic or news publisher content, or by human moderators who may be domiciled outside of the UK.  

Publishers risk double-regulation under the regime, as they are currently subject to a robust and complex system of law, regulation and editorial codes.  UK citizens would be impacted by a paucity of reliable news and information, which is precisely what this Bill is seeking to address.

The current version of the Online Safety Bill, as passed in the House of Commons, includes a robust exemption for news providers which is critical to ensure that public access to journalism is not inadvertently impeded by well-intentioned laws to crack down on harmful online content.

The NMA is committed to ensuring the government realises its stated objective to protect freedom of speech as the new regime is brought into force and will continue to work towards this outcome.