The UK Online Safety Bill Becomes Law, What Does It Mean?

We’ve previously reported from the UK about the Online Safety Bill, a piece of internet safety legislation that contains several concerning provisions relating to online privacy and encryption. UK laws enter the statutes by royal assent after being approved by Parliament, so with the signature of the King, it has now become the law of the land as the Online Safety Act 2023. Now that it’s beyond amendment, it’s time to take stock for a minute: what does it mean for internet users, both in the UK and beyond its shores?

The Act puts the onus on online platform owners to identify and remove illegal content and requires age verification for anything deemed unsuitable for sensitive young eyes. The concerning part is a provision allowing for service providers to be required to monitor communications, which would require strong encryption to be either removed or backdoored. Crucially, it’s a provision rather than a requirement, meaning that they can enact it in the future, but it’s not in force yet, but its mere existence has prompted some services to indicate that they’d leave the UK market if it came into force. Were that to happen, there would remain a concern for people not in the UK that backdoors introduced to satisfy UK law might compromise security for everyone.

When does coverage of a story about gunsmithing become illegal?

Though the legislation is now on the books, there remains a process of consultation during which the parameters of what constitutes illegal content would be decided, along with the mechanics of how it would be enforced. While some of the areas of its scope, such as child abuse or terrorist recruitment, might be obvious, we can see that there could be unexpected ramifications. As an example, close to home, making or owning a firearm is illegal in the UK. We’d expect a terrorist firearms training video to be also illegal under the new Act, but could it be argued that watching an American make a firearm through a site like Hackaday would also be illegal? We expect that the consultation process will throw up more stories as it grapples with this kind of question.

Though we think this is a concerning piece of legislation with plenty of possibilities for becoming infamous as a bad piece of law, we’d counsel readers to remember how incompetent governments usually turn out to be when dealing with anything involving technology. There’s a probably apocryphal story about the medieval Norse King of England Knut the Great, ordering the tide to stop as a demonstration of the limits of his powers, which we think might form an appropriate parallel.

King Canute header image: William Balfour Ker, Public domain.

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Jenny List