The Online Safety Bill is a major change in the law that governs what can be posted online. The bill is currently being debated in parliament. It has a hyperbolic goal to “make the UK the safest country to be online” and proposes a complex regulatory system.
The law requires platforms, social media, and search engines to assess and mitigate the harms that their services may cause. Ofcom will conduct its risk assessments and create risk profiles for various platforms (such as YouTube, Instagram, or Tinder) before publishing guidance in the form of “codes” of practice.
This act will be applicable even if the provider of the platform is located abroad. All platforms that engage in potentially harmful activity are liable, regardless of where they are located.
Ofcom is well-versed in the regulation of audiovisual content for television. Online safety is more than just removing or blocking harmful material. In reality, it is about changing business models for companies such as Meta (parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp). Profits for these companies depend on users’ engagement, no matter how damaging the content may be.
Harmful Business Model
Business models that are based on targeting advertising and exploitation of user data can cause harm online. Social media platforms are the best example, as they make money from making it easier to share content and then selling advertisers information that is gathered through this sharing.
These platforms are largely free, but the sale of data about users funds them. In essence, brokers monitor our online behavior and sell information about what motivates us to engage. Companies are now encouraged to keep their users engaged so that they can continue to be exposed to advertising.
Platform design features such as autoplay videos and endless scrolling are used to achieve the goal of engagement. The algorithms that determine what content is shown to users are another important aspect. This is often where the harm occurs because keeping users engaged can mean presenting more extremist content and encouraging customers down a rabbit hole.
The social media platforms constantly nudge us into reacting to content. This rapid response leads to a reactive, unreflective attitude that can lead to issues like pile-on harassment. This leads to the massive amplification and spread of hateful posts that can be shared with millions in minutes. The results are destructive. See, for example, the riots that occurred on Capitol Hill in January 2021 or the attacks against Rohingyas following hate speech posted on Facebook. These have led to suits both in the UK and the US.
Is it possible to change the product?
The parliamentary committee examining the bill correctly raised the issue of safe platform design. It is hard to reinvent a model that has proven profitable, particularly for tech companies. Ofcom will have a difficult time implementing the changes because platforms are unlikely to accept any change in their business model.
The UK’s online safety bill is designed to make it the “safest place to be online.” ARVD73 / Shutterstock
It may be best to reduce online harm by reducing the reliance on engagement, advertising, and sharing revenue, but this could also mean the end of “free” social media.
How the act deals with failing to secure platforms will determine whether it lives up to its promise of “online security.” The online safety bill should be complemented with technology regulation.
The EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act is a step in the right direction. It applies different levels of regulation depending on the severity and risks of the technology.
To prevent harm, competition law should also be used to curtail risky business practices by dominant operators. The EU’s proposal of a Digital Markets Act, if passed, will curb abusive business practices by requiring large platforms to comply with several obligations. For example, restricting targeted advertising without consent.
The growing anger over online abuse and the awareness of the exploitation of our data is helping to make the internet a safer place. This anger could lead to a stronger political will in the UK and globally to regulate tech giants