Labour rejects government claims its online safety bill is “world-leading”

Katie Neame

Labour has rejected claims by ministers that its online safety bill is “world-leading” as seven countries have introduced online safety laws since the Conservatives first announced their plan to regulate online spaces four years ago.

Ahead of the long-awaited bill being published on Thursday, the opposition party criticised past delays and accused the government of enabling Russian disinformation to spread in the UK via its failure to tackle online harms.

Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell said: “Delay to the online safety bill has allowed the Russian regime’s disinformation to spread like wildfire online. Other groups have watched and learned their tactics, with Covid conspiracy theories undermining public health and climate deniers putting our future at risk.

“The government has promised to tighten the rules in the online world for almost four years. While we support the principles of the bill that is finally being published, delay up to this point has come with significant cost.

“The big tech companies will not regulate themselves. The government must ensure the bill can tackle disinformation online.”

Labour has argued that Russia has been allowed to use the “wild west” of the internet to spread disinformation and attempt to destabilise the West in the almost four years since the bill was first announced.

The issue has become more pressing following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as state-sponsored disinformation has spread widely on social media and Russian-linked accounts have amplified fake fact-check claims about the conflict.

The opposition party highlighted that the delay allowed the sharing of approximately two million antisemitic tweets, more than £3bn to be lost through fraud and online cyber crime, and 60,000 online child sexual abuse material and grooming offences to be committed.

According to Labour, early drafts of the bill were overly complex and gave too much freedom to tech companies to continue to write their own rules. Under the draft legislation, large fines will be imposed on sites that fail to remove illegal material.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries recently revealed other content types that would be classed as illegal, including revenge porn, hate crimes, fraud, the sale of illegal drugs or weapons, the promotion or facilitation of suicide, people smuggling and sexual exploitation. Terrorism and child sexual abuse were already covered.

Dorries also announced that companies would be forced to proactively prevent people from being exposed to illegal content in the first place. Previously, companies were required to take such content down only after it had been reported to them by users.

Media regulator Ofcom will be given powers to issue fines of up to 10% of annual worldwide turnover to non-compliant sites, or to block the sites from being accessed in the UK.

Dorries has been criticised over her understanding of the detail in this area of her brief. Politico reported that she asked Microsoft when it was going to “get rid of algorithms”, though campaigners typically call for reform rather than a ban.

The Culture Secretary also struggled during an appearance in front of the digital, culture, media and sport committee last year, when committee member and fellow Tory MP Damian Green corrected her false claim that Channel 4 receives license fee money.

Dorries has been seen to put her personal stamp on the legislation by unveiling policies such as a requirement that social network sites allow users to block unverified accounts.

She has also announced that the biggest platforms will now have a legal duty to protect users from fraudulent paid-for advertisements, a move that the government had previously resisted.

Dorries wrote on ConservativeHome on Wednesday that “MPs and journalists have raised the horrifying spectre that the bill will give people like Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg unlimited power to decide what is and isn’t acceptable to say online”.

“Well, if they’re worried about that, I’ve got news for them: we’re already there,” the minister said. She added that the bill would “defend freedom of expression” and “defend the invaluable role of a free press” to mitigate the problem.

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