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Online Safety Bill: UK lawmakers recommend tighter rules for Big Tech

Members of Parliament and peers suggest adding new offenses to the Online Safety Bill and giving the regulator additional power ahead of next year's parliamentary vote.

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The UK is getting ready to vote on regulating Big Tech.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

UK lawmakers want to further tighten new rules governing Big Tech ahead of a parliamentary vote. A joint committee of members of Parliament from the House of Commons and peers from the House of Lords published recommendations on Tuesday to tighten the draft Online Safety Bill before Parliament votes on the legislation next year.

The Online Safety Bill, previously known as the Online Harms Bill, has been years in the making. A draft copy of the bill published in May detailed how UK media watchdog Ofcom will be charged with regulating tech companies in Britain. Ofcom will have the power to fine tech companies £18 million ($25.3 million) or 10% of their annual revenue, whichever is higher, if they fail to remove harmful or illegal content, as well as to block sites and services. Senior managers at tech companies could even face criminal charges if those companies consistently fall short of their obligations.

For the past few months, lawmakers have been studying the bill and taking evidence from a number of stakeholders, ranging from victims of online hate to Facebook whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang to executives from major tech companies. At the conclusion of their investigation, they have published a report advising that the new law should apply more widely than currently stated in the draft bill.

"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," said Committee Chair Damian Collins in a statement.

The recommendations suggest new criminal offenses be added to the bill, including "cyberflashing" (sending unwanted nude pictures) and content encouraging people to self-harm. They also suggest making it illegal to deliberately send flashing images to people with photosensitive epilepsy and giving porn sites a legal obligation to keep children off them. Additionally, the lawmakers recommended that paid-for advertising used to conduct scams or fraud should be included in the scope of the bill.

Other recommendations include Ofcom drawing up codes of practice on topics including child exploitation and terrorism with which tech platforms must comply, as well as adding new codes when new problems arise so that the legislation remains relevant as tech changes.

"The era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end," said Collins. "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."