Online Safety Bill: British Parliament adopts its major digital security law

After long debates and four years of back and forth, the two houses of the British Parliament definitively adopted, on Tuesday September 19, the Online Safety Bill, a law which provides for a series of security measures for the protection of Internet users

Online Safety Bill: British Parliament adopts its major digital security law

After long debates and four years of back and forth, the two houses of the British Parliament definitively adopted, on Tuesday September 19, the Online Safety Bill, a law which provides for a series of security measures for the protection of Internet users. The text should be promulgated in the coming days. British Secretary of State for Technology, Michelle Donelan, said this new text was a major step forward, which would make “the United Kingdom the safest place in the world to be online”.

Similar in certain aspects to the French bill “securing and regulating digital space”, currently examined in committee at the National Assembly, the English text provides for several measures to protect minors, particularly targeting social networks.

The platforms will have to, among other things, “promptly remove or prevent the publication” of content inciting suicide or self-harm, put in place additional measures to control the age of users, publish regular reports on the actions taken, facilitate reporting of problematic content or situations. Those failing to comply with these obligations face fines of up to 10% of their global turnover.

Limitations techniques

Critics of the text argue that some of these provisions are difficult to apply in practice. Age verification technologies, in particular, have so far struggled to strike a balance between privacy and effectiveness, leading the previous British government to abandon a bill in 2019 aimed at to impose them on all pornographic sites.

The version of the text adopted by Parliament also retains a particularly controversial provision, which requires messaging services and large platforms to proactively “scan” content exchanged by their users to detect child pornography content. Strongly contested by all major digital companies, this provision would in practice result in prohibiting the encryption of communications on messaging services such as WhatsApp or iMessage. However, encryption is considered by these companies and by computer security experts as essential to protect users from hacking and surveillance.

Several messaging operators, including WhatsApp, had declared that they would be forced to leave the United Kingdom and stop offering their services there if this provision was put in place. At the beginning of September, the government tried to be reassuring by affirming that this measure would not be applied until the technology to do it securely was ready. It could therefore never be implemented, because no technical solution seems possible today.