We are extremely pleased to have had the chance to pick the brain of Ben Greenstone regarding the upcoming Online Safety Bill, which is new legislation making its way through Parliament in the U.K. Ben is the founder and Managing Director of Taso Advisory, a public policy consultancy with a focus on technology. Before setting up Taso Advisory, Ben was an adviser on technology and creative industries policy to Cabinet Ministers and Ministers in the U.K. Government. Ben also serves as an adviser to Checkstep.
1. The U.K. Online Safety Bill is now with parliament and being hashed out. Can you give a brief summary of what’s going on for those who haven’t been following the progress?
The initiative goes back a long way, but this most recent effort begins with the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper in 2017. The Green Paper morphed into the Online Harms White Paper and has now become the Online Safety Bill. It all came about because the Government and Parliament have taken the view that bad things — both illegal and legal but harmful — happen online and that online businesses do not do enough to deal with it.
The Online Safety Bill is the effort to rectify that. It creates an entirely new regulatory and legislative framework for online businesses, particularly those that allow users to interact and create content. There will be a wide number of duties incumbent on regulated services, and a lot to keep track of.
The Bill is currently making its way through Parliament, and will likely receive Royal Assent—when it becomes an Act of Parliament—in early 2023.
2. As much as possible, can you give us an inside view of MPs’ heads when they work on legislation like the OSB? What do they think about? What do they think they can accomplish?
Lots of that depends on the Member of Parliament! People forget, but MPs are human beings with their own interests, priorities and experiences. So MPs who were lawyers might be interested in making sure it is tightly drafted. MPs who were teachers might be particularly interested in ensuring the Bill focuses on children, and so on.
There is also a very strong belief in the primacy of Parliament. We’ve seen a number of MPs become frustrated that large technology businesses do not send their most senior executives, or CEOs, to meet with them. They truly believe that they can change both how businesses operate and how citizens experience the internet.
3. Whenever significant legislation comes out, companies have to scramble to make sure they can meet the new requirements. What should corporate executives be doing now to make sure they’ll be compliant when the bill becomes law?
There’s still a lot of the Bill that is uncertain and being determined. As it goes through Parliament it can be amended and tweaked by both MPs and Peers. So while there are things that are very likely, nothing is yet absolutely certain.
I’d recommend executives work with their internal teams and external advisers to figure out what is highly likely to be required if the Bill passes, what might be required, and what probably won’t be required. Businesses will then want to audit their product, terms of service and internal processes against that analysis. Companies should ask themselves, do you have a problem, or are you going to find this easy enough?
If you might have a problem, you’ll want to think about how you can fix that. You might also think about how you can engage with Parliament and Government to raise the issue, and with the future regulator, Ofcom, to understand their position.
4. While the regulation received a lot of praise, there was a lot of criticism as well, particularly with respect to unclear definitions of legal but harmful content. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I think there’s a lot of this legislation that is messy and needs to be fixed, and I agree with the criticism of including legal but harmful content. The EU has gone for a much clearer approach by focusing on illegal content. The real risk with the U.K. approach is that we create a category of speech that is effectively banned online but which is allowed offline. That seems to me to be a really bad outcome.
5. We can expect lots of changes to the legislation as it moves through the process. What’s the best way to keep up with the latest?
The best way is to watch the debates and committee sessions, but that’s seriously time consuming! There’ll be some reporting in the press, but for businesses that want a detailed analysis, you’ll want to use an outside policy consultant to provide you with regular briefings and updates as they happen.