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UK government puts Online Safety Bill 'on ice'

Delaying the third reading until the autumn gives the next prime minister and digital secretary a chance to revise, or throw out, the legislation

The contentious Online Safety Bill has been delayed by the government as a result of the inner turmoil in the Conservative party.

Its third reading in the House of Commons was due to take place next Wednesday, but this crucial stage has been pushed back to at least the autumn. The leader of the House of Commons Mark Spencer published next week’s schedule ahead of parliament's summer recess without a mention of the bill. Instead of debating the Online Safety Bill, the government has tabled a motion of no confidence in itself, alongside a debate around the Northern Ireland protocol bill.

This could potentially kill off the legislation, as its passage through parliament will be overseen by a new prime minister and perhaps a new secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS), both of whom may not support the bill in its current form.

The legislation is highly contentious not only because it raises the prospect of banning legal, albeit harmful, content, but also because it compels prominent players in the tech industry to implement sweeping changes across their platforms. The most recent amendment, for example, compels tech companies and messaging services to either develop or acquire technology that automatically scans messages for content that's deemed harmful.

Potential Tory leader candidate Kemi Badenoch commented on the matter on Twitter, calling it the right move and underlining that the bill is in no fit state to become law.

“If I’m elected Prime Minister I will ensure the bill doesn’t overreach. We should not be legislating for hurt feelings,” she said.

In response, Nadine Dorries, the current DCMS secretary replied: “Which part of the bill legislates for hurt feelings, Kemi?” on Twitter.

“The Online Safety Bill is fundamentally misconceived. It holds out the threat that our social media posts will be removed and censored, and goes to the heart of our basic right to express our opinions online, and to hear the opinions of others,” said Monica Horten, free expression policy manager of the Open Rights Group. 

Horten added the campaign website belonging to Penny Mordaunt, another Tory leader candidate, is being listed as unsafe for children and blocked by customers of some broadband providers, using their filters, which shows what can and will go wrong.

“As it stands, the bill would mean everyone’s social media posts are monitored in case they are ‘harmful’ or illegal, and even private messages could be scanned,” explained Horten. “What is ‘harmful’ will be decided by government ministers behind closed doors. While the motivations may be good, the result is bad for free speech. MPs now have a chance for a rethink, which is long overdue, if we want to protect our free society from arbitrary censorship and mass surveillance.”

In January, a DCMS committee report outlined that the Online Safety Bill fails to tackle child abuse and violence against women and girls. The committee called on MPs to address the issues in the bill, and described the draft legislation in its form as a “missed opportunity”.

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