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Online Safety Bill stalls again

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The government’s flagship Online Safety Bill has been dropped from commons business after parliament ran out of time to push it through.

Reports suggest it will make it back onto the agenda in the Autumn, but there are rumours key proposals could be dropped.

The bill is intended to protect people, children in particular, from harmful content including pornography and sites promoting anorexia and suicide.

In March, after widespread lobbying, ministers amended the bill to include rules to force social media, apps, websites and search platforms to screen content and limit users’ exposure where it is illegal or considered harmful.

The legislation would also make company executives criminally liable if they don’t comply with Ofcom information requests two months after the law begins, rather than the two years previously proposed.

Managers can also be found criminally liable if they destroy evidence, fail to attend Ofcom interviews or give false information, or obstruct Ofcom’s work.

In May, financial fraud on social media and dating apps was included in the Online Safety Bill which would help tackle romance fraud where people are manipulated into sending money to fake identities on dating apps. It would also tackle fake investment opportunities posted by users. But the addition was criticised as fraud via advertising, emails or cloned websites was omitted.

Top of the list of proposals under scrutiny is how sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Google decide what content is harmful and what isn’t.

This morning, Tory leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch tweeted that dropping the bill “would be the right move”.

The Twitter post read: “The bill is in no fit state to become law. If I’m elected Prime Minister I will ensure the bill doesn’t overreach. We should not be legislating for hurt feelings.”

Culture secretary Nadine Dorries hit back, tweeting: “Encouraging others to take their own life is what comes under that definition. It’s a huge problem, especially with young people. You really define that as ‘hurt feelings’?”

Dorries released an initial list of “priority content that is harmful to adults” last week which included online abuse, suicide, the promotion of eating disorders and harassment..

Victoria Hewson, head of regulatory affairs at free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, said the bill’s delay provided “an ideal opportunity to reconsider this highly contentious legislation”.

She said: “The bill not only raises serious free speech issues but has also become complex and unmanageable. The latest amendments have made this situation even worse.

“The bill should either be abandoned entirely or stripped back to what is absolutely necessary to protect the safety of the most vulnerable.

“It should not seek to protect adults from all sorts of alleged harms at a cost of billions of pounds to businesses, and at the expense of freedom of expression.”

Kate Smith, head of pensions at Aegon, said the delay – the latest in a series of hold ups – was “incredibly frustrating”,

“This is a really important piece of legislation designed to help protect people from pension and investment fraud,” she said.

“Yes, it’s a wide-ranging complex piece of legislation, and it’s important it covers the right areas and has enough flexibilities to respond to the quick evolving nature of scams. But the bill has faced continual delays and amendments and has already had to be reintroduced in this year’s Queen’s Speech in May as parliament ran out of time to complete its progress from Bill to Act.

“It’s likely the delay will lead to yet another review of the Bill’s content, but we’re hopeful that it will continue to include online financial fraud to provide that much-needed extra protection to consumers.”