Warning: This briefing discusses child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, suicide and self-harm, which some readers may find distressing.

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The Online Safety Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 17 March 2022.

The Government has said the Bill delivers its “manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression”.

What does the Online Safety Bill aim to do?

The Bill has five policy objectives:

  • to increase user safety online.
  • to preserve and enhance freedom of speech online.
  • to improve law enforcement’s ability to tackle illegal content online.
  • to improve users’ ability to keep themselves safe online.
  • to improve society’s understanding of the harm landscape.

Policy background to the Bill, as it was originally introduced, is set out in the Library briefing, Analysis of the Online Safety Bill (PDF)(8 April 2022). 

Progress of the Bill in the House of Commons

The Bill [Bill 285 2021-22] had its second reading on 19 April 2022. A carry-over motion, allowing it to be carried into the next parliamentary session, was approved on the same date.

The Bill was considered by a Public Bill Committee over seventeen sittings between 24 May and 28 June 2022. Oral evidence was taken from expert witnesses during the first four sittings.

Line by line examination of the Bill took place over thirteen sittings in June 2022. The Government added a new schedule 2 to the Bill to enable Ofcom to recover its initial costs by charging fees to service providers. Clause 129 was also amended by the Government so that Ofcom would have to consult the Information Commissioner’s Office before publishing guidance on using its enforcement powers. No Opposition amendments were agreed.

The first day of report stage took place on 12 July 2022. Government amendments were added to the Bill relating to journalistic content, adult safety duties, and illegal content duties.

Michelle Donelan became Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on 6 September 2022. She then reviewed the Bill’s adult safety duties. According to the DCMS, this was to ensure the right balance was struck “between protecting users from harmful content online and protecting users’ rights to freedom of expression”.

During this time, some MPs raised concerns about when the Bill’s remaining Commons stages would take place and whether it would have time to pass in the current parliamentary session.

The second day of Report stage took place on 5 December 2022. New Government clauses and amendments were agreed. These included a new clause to add an offence of “epilepsy trolling” to the Bill. The Commons also agreed several Government amendments to remove the proposed new harmful communications offence and the proposed repeal of existing harmful communication offences.

On 28 November 2022, the Government announced plans to amend the Bill, including the removal of the “legal but harmful” provisions for adults to protect freedom of expression. To enable debate on the amendments and new clauses, the Bill was recommitted to a Public Bill Committee. There were two sittings on 13 December 2022 and one sitting on 15 December 2022. New Government clauses and amendments were made. Among other things, these removed the adult safety duties and introduced new user empowerment tools for adults, so people would be able to control what content they might see online. They would also require the largest companies to remove or restrict access to legal content only where this was consistent with their terms of service.

The Bill had its third day of Report stage and its Third reading on 17 January 2023.

Progress of the Bill in the House of Lords

The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 18 January 2023 (HL Bill 87(Rev) (PDF). Lords second reading took place on 1 February 2023.

The Bill had sixteen sittings in Committee between 25 April and 22 June 2023 where Government amendments were agreed. These included a new clause that would make it an offence to encourage or assist another person to seriously self-harm. No Opposition amendments were agreed.

The Bill was considered on report on 6, 10, 12, 17 and 19 July 2023. Government amendments were made to the Bill. These would, among other things:

  • require the use of age verification or age estimation to prevent children accessing pornographic content.
  • put the categories of ‘primary priority’ and ‘priority’ content that is harmful to children on the face of the Bill.
  • enable Ofcom to require information relating to a child’s social media use if requested to do so by a coroner.
  • strengthen the user empowerment features by requiring Category 1 providers to ask their registered adult users whether they would like the content tools to be applied.
  • require Ofcom to produce guidance summarising measures that could be taken to reduce the risk of harm to women and girls.
  • create a new offence that would hold senior managers liable for a provider’s failure to comply with a child sexual exploitation and abuse requirement imposed by a confirmation decision. 
  • update Ofcom’s statutory media literacy duty to introduce new objectives relating to regulated services.
  • introduce new offences of sharing or threatening to share intimate photographs or films.

The Government was defeated on three issues at report stage:

  • adding animal welfare issues to schedule 7 (Priority offences). This became clause 64 of the Bill as amended on Report (HL Bill 164 (PDF)). Baroness Merron (Shadow Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport) said the new clause was needed because of the “worryingly high volume of animal cruelty and animal torture content” available online.
  • an amendment to clause 11 (Children’s risk assessment duties) of HL Bill 164. The amendment would mean that in carrying out risk assessments, user-to-user services would have to “consider the potential for the design and operation of services to create harm separately and additionally to harm relating to the dissemination of or encountering harmful content”. Baroness Kidron (Crossbench) said her amendment was necessary as the Government would not accept that harm to children could arise from the functionality and design of services and not just from content.
  • an amendment to schedule 11 (Categories of regulated user-to-user services and regulated search services: regulations). This would mean that the test for determining which services would fall within Category 1 would move from a test of size “and” functionality to a test of size “or” functionality. Baroness Morgan of Cotes (Labour) said her amendment was needed because functionality and not just size could make platforms harmful.

The Bill had its third reading on 6 September 2023 

Ping pong

The House of Commons considered Lords amendments to the Bill on 12 September 2023. The Government agreed to the amendment to schedule 11. It also agreed to add animal welfare offences to schedule 7. On amending clause 11, Paul Scully, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, said the Government agreed with the objective, but was concerned that Baroness Kidron’s amendment might not work within the Bill’s framework. The Government had therefore worked closely with Baroness Kidron and others to draft its own amendments. These would make it explicit that service providers would be required to assess the impact that design, functionalities, and other features had on the risk of harm to children.

The House of Lords agreed with the amendments on 19 September 2023.

Royal Assent

The Bill received Royal Assent on 26 October 2023. The Online Safety Act 2023 (PDF) is available online. A Government press release summarises the main protections the Act will provide.

Ofcom, the regulator, has published details on the implementation of the Act:

Documents to download

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