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New internet laws aim to keep people safe online – but excludes online scams

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Written by: Emma Lunn
12/05/2021
Financial fraud on social media and dating apps has been included in the Online Safety Bill, but fraud via advertising, emails or cloned websites has been omitted.

The Online Safety Bill will be published today and aims to help protect young people and clampdown on racist abuse online, while safeguarding freedom of expression.

However, the bill has been criticised for not including online scams. A coalition of organisations wrote to the government last week, urging ministers to include investment and pension scams in the bill.

Clampdown on tech firms

Under the bill, social media sites, websites, apps and other services hosting user-generated content or allowing people to talk to others online must remove and limit the spread of illegal and harmful content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.

Ofcom will be able to fine companies up to £18m or 10% of their annual global turnover (whichever is higher) if they fail to take down harmful content. The regulator will also have the power to block access to sites.

A new criminal offence for senior managers has been included as a deferred power. This could be introduced at a later date if tech firms don’t step up their efforts to improve safety.

The bill also includes provisions to tackle prolific online scams such as romance fraud, which have seen people manipulated into sending money to fake identities on dating apps.

Digital secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Today the UK shows global leadership with our groundbreaking laws to usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world.

“We will protect children on the internet, crack down on racist abuse on social media and through new measures to safeguard our liberties, create a truly democratic digital age.”

The draft bill will be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs before a final version is formally introduced to parliament.

Online fraud

Measures to tackle user-generated fraud will be included in the bill. It will mean online companies will, for the first time, have to take responsibility for tackling fraudulent user-generated content, such as posts on social media, on their platforms.

This includes romance scams and fake investment opportunities posted by users on Facebook groups or sent via Snapchat.

But fraud via advertising, emails or cloned websites will not be in the bill. The government says this is because the bill ‘focuses on harm committed through user-generated content’.

Martin Lewis, founder of both Moneysavingexpert.com and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute said: “The Queen read that ‘my government will lead the way in providing internet safety for all, especially children’. Yet the government has stumbled at the first fence, by not including scams in the online safety bill.

“We live in a world where the policing of scams is dangerously underfunded, leaving criminals to get away with fraud with impunity. This was a chance to at least deny them the ‘oxygen of publicity’ by making big tech responsible for the scammers adverts it is paid to publish.

“By not doing so the government has failed to protect millions, in the midst of a pandemic, from one of the most damaging online harms to their financial and mental health. My slim hope is, as prior reports hinted, the door is ajar for scams to be added to the bill at the committee stage. And we will continue to expose this gap, and push ministers to put in place proper consumer protections against scams.”

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