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| 4 minutes read

Scrolling through the UK political parties’ online safety promises

With the election only a few days away, there is no better time to dissect what the UK's political parties are pledging regarding online safety. From building on the Online Safety Act (OSA), to setting up new regulatory agencies, the parties have outlined a range of different and ambitious plans. Whether they will come to fruition, and how they will interact with the OSA, remains to be seen…

What about the Online Safety Act? 

Following the passage of the OSA in 2023, Ofcom sprang into action to bring the various parts of the OSA into effect. Already, Ofcom has conducted consultations on phase one (concerning illegal harms) and phase two (focused on the protection of children) and began its work on phase 3 (on the duties reserved for “categorised” services). Nonetheless, Ofcom has a long road ahead before the “duties of care” that require platforms to take steps to protect users from illegal content and children from content that is harmful to them start to bite. 

Both Labour and Conservative are promising to build on the Online Safety Act. Labour wants to bring forward ‘provisions as quickly as possible, and explore further measures to keep everyone safer online, particularly when using social media’. Similarly, the Conservatives want to ‘build on the existing responsibilities set out for social media companies’. However, neither specify exactly how they move quicker or what these extra provisions would be. 

Certain commitments made in the parties’ manifestos seem to echo provisions that already exist in the OSA. For instance, the Conservatives’ acknowledgement of the need to ‘consult widely’ on ‘more effective age verification and parental controls’ could be said to have already taken place through Ofcom’s recent consultation on the implementation of the “children duties” in the OSA (see our recent article on the draft codes here). 

Likewise, Labour have promised that “executives of online companies that flout these rules will be personally held to account through tough sanctions”. This may merely be referring to the OSA’s provisions that can result in senior executives being liable for failures to respond to information notices, or it may suggest that Labour may look to go further and introduce individual liability for breaches of the substantive duties.

Which online areas are in focus? 

The political parties are all looking to broaden the scope of content capable of constituting an offence. Both Labour and Conservative have their eyes on either banning or creating new offences to tackle sexually explicit deepfakes. Labour has specific and targeted proposals for tackling online crime, hate and extremism, fraud, and gambling online, as well as specific proposals to give coroners more authority to access tech firms' data following a child's death.

The Conservatives have focussed their proposals on children’s access to social media altogether, by proposing to put guidance on banning children’s use of mobile phones in the school day on a statutory footing. The mechanism for enforcing such a ban is still to be fleshed out, although the government has stated that funding will be provided to help schools implement it. Reform UK likewise have focussed on children’s use of social media, pledging to promote child-friendly app-restricted mobile phones and ban the use of phones in schools for pupils under the age of 16.

The Liberal Democrats have also focussed on children’s safety, proposing to: treble the Digital Services Tax pledge to fund mental health practitioners in schools; incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK law; and set up an independent advocacy body for children’s safety online. If elected, they will also require social media companies to publish reports setting out actions they have taken to address online abuse against women and girls, and those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. 

More regulatory bodies?!

Labour proposes a new Regulatory Innovation Office ‘bringing together existing functions across government’ to ‘help regulators update regulation, speed up approval timelines and co-ordinate issues that span existing boundaries’. In practice this will combine the Better Regulation Executive and the secretariat for the Regulatory Horizons Council; however, a key focus of this office will be the safe development and use of AI models. The Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (comprised of Ofcom, the ICO, the CMA, and FCA) already focusses on co-ordination between regulators on these technological areas that span regulatory boundaries. 

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are proposing the establishment of an Online Crime Agency to tackle illegal content and activity online, such as personal fraud, revenge porn and threats and incitement to violence on social media. How this agency would interact with pre-existing agencies – such as the SFO, NCA, and Ofcom – remains to be seen. While most parties are largely silent as to the question on global cooperation on online regulation, the Liberal Democrats aim to negotiate the UK’s participation in the Trade and Technology Council with the US and the EU to ensure the UK can play a pivotal role in AI regulation.

Similar to the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party want to introduce a Digital Bill of Rights. The Liberal Democrats intend for this to ‘protect everyone’s rights online, including the rights to privacy, free expression, and participation without being subjected to harassment and abuse’. In a similar vein, the Green Party hope that this will ‘establish the UK as a leading voice on standards for the rule of law and democracy in digital spaces’.

The Conservatives, however, have focussed on investment and innovation as opposed to regulation, planning to increase public spending on science and innovation research and development to £22 billion a year. They propose using AI to make the government more efficient and to transform the NHS but leave the question of how AI is to be regulated unanswered.

Whatever the result, more regulation seems certain

While the outcome of the election is pending, it is clear that online safety and digital regulation will be a key focus in the post-election world. Despite the OSA having only been passed a matter of months ago, no political party is proposing to stick with the status quo. Though the outcome of Thursday’s election is not yet clear, one certainty is that there will be more regulatory change concerning online safety and digital regulation in the coming years.



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