UK joint committee calls for tougher rules for tech giants

However, IT industry experts suggest Online Safety Bill proposals aren't clear enough for everyday users

The government has been urged to make "major changes" to the draft of the Online Safety Bill to protect users from the "Wild West" of social media. 

A Joint Committee of MPs and peers have demanded that more offences be classed as illegal in the proposed legislation, such as fraudulent advertising or content that promotes self-harm. 

The Bill is due to be put to Parliament for approval next year, but the committee, which is chaired by MP for Folkestone and Hythe Damian Collins, said a lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and, in some cases, even "loss of life".

"The Committee has set out recommendations to bring more offences clearly within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, give Ofcom the power in law to set minimum safety standards for the services they will regulate, and to take enforcement action against companies if they don't comply," Collins said.

"The era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end. The companies are clearly responsible for services they have designed and profit from, and need to be held to account for the decisions they make."

However, the proposals in the Bill have not gone far enough, according to experts from the IT industry who suggest that education is needed for it to work.

"If I were the mum of a young daughter whose social life is mainly online, it wouldn't be clear to me if this bill really does do enough to keep her safe," said Dr Bill Mitchell, the director of policy at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.

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"What would bother me is it seems to rely entirely on the platforms' own risk assessments and their own reporting on how well their systems work at reducing harm.

"I'd want to have more reassurance around how the Bill will guarantee auditing and that accountability of social media platforms is open, transparent and rigorous. For me as an IT professional I'd like to have more clarity on how the Bill ensures a future Secretary of State can't unduly interfere with the independence of Ofcom as the new regulator for social media platforms."

Labour has also criticised the Bill, describing it as a "yet another broken promise" from the prime minister, Boris Johnson, because it won't be put through the House of Commons until next year. 

"The prime minister's failure to bring forward the online harms bill by Christmas is yet another broken promise," the opposition's new shadow secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Powell, said.

"The government must now urgently act to strengthen its proposals and bring them to parliament to prevent more and more people becoming victims online."

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