British Christian charities have welcomed the passing of the Online Safety Bill which contains measures to protect children from age-inappropriate sites as well as coercion, bullying and self-harm on the internet.
After years of delays, the bill has passed its final stage in the House of Lords and will soon become law. It introduces mandatory age checks for people trying to access adult sites online, including on social media platforms.
There are significant penalties for platforms and site providers that fail to comply. They can be fined up to A$35 million or 10% of their global annual revenue — whichever is biggest.
Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, who drove the bill through Parliament told Hello magazine: “I call it a game changer in terms of the legislation because it really will make a difference, particularly for children who are at the heart of this piece of legislation. It will mean that here in the UK, it will become the safest place in the world to be on the Internet.”
“Parents will have the confidence of knowing that when their child is using a social media platform, they’re doing so in a safer way because they’re not able to see the illegal content that they are now and that they’re not able to see some of the content that is really not age appropriate – just like you would expect with a movie or anything else of that nature,” the Secretary proclaimed.
Christian charity CARE which has spent years campaigning for age checks, welcomed the passing of the bill. CEO Ross Hendry said that some internet sites were having a “devastating impact” on children and young people.
Mr Hendry added it was “deeply sad” that protections had not been put into place sooner. “Most younger children encounter inappropriate online sites by accident. Robust age verification measures will help prevent the youngest and most vulnerable kids being exposed to content that is disturbing and damaging to them,” he asserted.
The Christian Institute’s Ciarán Kelly gave a cautious welcome to the bill’s “much-needed protections for children online. We know all too well that there is a difference between a bill being passed and its measures being enforced. Similar measures were passed six years ago in the Digital Economy Act 2017 but were never implemented.”
The new laws cover other harmful content relating to terrorism, weapons, drugs, animal cruelty and scams. State regulator Ofcom will be responsible for enforcing the new laws.
Mr Kelly noted: “Ofcom has been regulating video-sharing platforms for effective age verification since 2020 and despite persistent failures, not a single fine has yet been issued. It is imperative that this time they show they mean business.”
The original bill included what Christians considered a “dangerous” category of legal but harmful material that social media companies would have been expected to police. It was aimed at content deemed to be harmful to adults even though it didn’t break any laws. It sparked fears social media companies would go far beyond what the law set out and censor conservative, traditional views on marriage, sexuality and gender.
The UK government dropped the ‘legal but harmful’ provisions after Christian groups and others spent many months convincing ministers and MPs that it is possible to protect children and adults from real harm without sacrificing everybody’s freedom of speech.