The United Kingdom’s recently unveiled Online Safety Bill seeks to protect Internet users from various types of harm online by imposing new legal obligations on social media platforms, search engines, and other user-generated content services. The Center for Data Innovation convened advocates and opponents of the legislation to discuss its provisions and potential effects on encrypted communications and online anonymity.
Throughout the discussion, Kate Jones, Associate Fellow of the International Law Programme at Chatham House, focused on the bill’s current strengths while acknowledging areas for improvement raised by other panellists. Jones argued that online services had failed to self-regulate successfully, but the government should work alongside platforms to help create a healthier information environment. Jones stated the Online Safety Bill was generally a positive step towards greater online safety but also recognized the need for more robust protection of encrypted communication and journalistic content.
Mallory Knodel, Chief Technology Officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, discussed how the bill’s monitoring obligations could hurt innovation and entrepreneurship and weaken end-to-end encryption. Knodel also highlighted how the bill’s provisions would impact users outside the UK since platforms aim to maintain a consistent user experience globally. Rather than imposing mandates on platforms, Knodel suggested incentivizing platforms to self-regulate in a way that aligns with the disparate needs of their global users. Online services should also have the flexibility to pivot in the face of ever-evolving security threats, which may prove challenging under the bill’s rigid monitoring obligations. Similarly, Knodel worried that rigid and vague scanning obligations would compel online services to weaken privacy protections, leaving previously encrypted channels ripe for abuse by malicious actors. She suggested that UK lawmakers look to less invasive content moderation solutions, like strengthening user reporting and analyzing existing metadata.
Sam Dumitriu, Research Director of The Entrepreneurs Network, warned that the bill’s current definitions for terms like “legal but harmful” are too vague and risk over-moderation by online services. Worse, Dumitriu warned that vague definitions within the bill’s scanning obligations could weaken encryption and anonymity. In fact, he argued that the legislation may have a chilling effect on end-to-end encryption despite not explicitly targeting the practice. Instead, he suggested better equipping law enforcement to tackle specific types of online harm as these are often a symptom of broader societal problems.
Victoria Hewson, Head of Regulatory Affairs and Research Associate of the Institute for Economic Affairs focused on the bill’s evolution from the Online Harms Bill to the Online Safety Bill and shared concerns surrounding recent changes. The bill’s obligations have widened to include more than just egregious online activity and introduce new criminal offenses that replace existing communication offenses in UK law. She worried that the duties placed on providers to police these new offenses would be corrosive to online privacy. Hewson ultimately warned against imposing technological solutions to societal problems and echoed greater investment in law enforcement.
Overall, the Online Safety Bill’s sweeping proposals leave many unanswered questions that could have a chilling effect on anonymity and encryption. While it has come a long way in achieving a balance between safety and civil liberties, it still needs significant improvement, including greater legislative clarity and stronger protections for encryption, anonymity, and free expression. As one of the first comprehensive attempts to regulate online harm, the Online Safety Bill will likely serve as a litmus test for other nations looking to impose similar regulations. Therefore, lawmakers should strike a delicate balance between privacy and safety online to ensure current missteps in its legislative text do not reverberate globally.