The Online Safety Bill, close to becoming UK law, poses significant challenges to London’s tech-savvy population and businesses. Despite strong opposition, the bill has passed its third and final reading in the House of Lords and awaits approval from MPs. One of the most contentious aspects is the requirement for messaging companies like WhatsApp and Signal to scan messages for child abuse images. While this may seem reasonable, tech companies argue that implementing such a feature would compromise user privacy. A backdoor for one purpose could be exploited for mass surveillance or other nefarious activities.
Moreover, the bill’s vague language leaves room for interpretation, causing concern among privacy advocates. For instance, the government recently stated that scanning for child abuse images would only be required when “technically feasible.” However, this phrase is not included in the amended legislation, leading to fears that the issue has merely been postponed. Regulatory bodies like Ofcom are expected to provide implementation guidance, but critics argue that the law itself needs to be clear and precise.
Age verification is another sticking point. The bill mandates website owners to verify the age of visitors, but experts question the reliability of existing age verification technologies. Such systems could result in both false positives and negatives, potentially allowing minors access to adult content and unfairly blocking adults. Furthermore, many adult websites are hosted outside the UK, making them difficult to regulate and leaving UK businesses at a disadvantage.
The bill also raises concerns about broad censorship. It requires social media companies to remove illegal content swiftly, but what constitutes “illegal” is not clearly defined. This ambiguity could lead to overzealous censorship, as companies may opt for a safer approach to avoid penalties.
In summary, the Online Safety Bill, while well-intentioned, has several problematic areas that could adversely affect Londoners and their businesses. From potential privacy invasions to unreliable age verification systems and ambiguous censorship rules, the bill’s current form leaves much to be desired.