Claims new online safety bill 'misses the point'

A Healthwatch Havering review of GP websites in the borough found a significant number "lack key inf

Helen warns you to be wary against online scammers purporting to be from the Post Office or the HMRC - Credit: PA

New laws aiming to tackle online abuse and keep children safe have been branded as a missed opportunity that won't tackle the underlying causes by Norfolk councillors and cybersecurity experts.  

The Online Safety Bill, announced in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech, will allow new online regulator Ofcom to fine, block access to sites, and creates a duty of care rules for tech companies.  

Lana Hempsall, a conservative county councillor who experienced a series of online attacks while running as an MP in 2017, welcomed the bill but was concerned it might not address the causes.  

“I hope it will help, I totally welcome it, but it will be interesting to see if it works with actual examples,” Ms Hempsall said.  

Lana Hempsall, who represents Acle on Broadland District Council. Picture: Conservative Party.

Lana Hempsall, who represents Acle on Broadland District Council. Picture: Conservative Party. - Credit: Conservative Party

While running, Ms Hempsall received a series of abusive attacks, including one comment on Facebook, which read: “shoot her and then pull her teeth out of her haw whilst she fades away.”  

Ms Hempsall said one of the hardest parts of getting online abuse is getting over a feeling of whether you invited it.  

“You ask yourself, what have I done in my behaviour that allowed this to happen?  

“That’s a question that anyone who has been abused will ask. It takes a while to process that it is not you.  

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“And even if things get taken down it still doesn’t feel right, we need preventative measures so that it doesn’t happen in the first place.”   

Labour Broadland councillor, Natasha Harpley, who has campaigned against unsolicited explicit photographs, said the bill did not seem to address issues like cyber-flashing and left a lot to interpretation.  

Ms Harpley said the bill missed out on recommendations from the law commission to make cyber-flashing a criminal office in the same way as if it were on the street.  

She said: “It might be in a future bill but I’m surprised not to see it here. This seems to be very broad without targeting anything specific.  

“It seems that there are lots of gaps for people to slip through.”  

While Ms Harpley welcomed big companies being made to take responsibility for the content on their platforms, but it failed to target the perpetrators.   

Ms Harpley was also concerned if the new laws would do enough to protect young people from sexually explicit content, having seen people talking about rough sex acts on Tik Tok. 

“I’m concerned that young people are seeing that and think it is the way to get a boyfriend. Will that be addressed?" 

Both councillors queried how the law would work in practice for companies based in America, like Youtube and Facebook.  

Natasha Harpley

Natasha Harpley, councillor for Sprowston Central, has been campaigning in recent years to make sending "dick pics" illegal - Credit: Natasha Harpley

Ms Hempsall said social media had allowed people to vent their frustrations without considering the impact on people.  

“I hope that the bill will address it but I can’t see it happening, but it might help address some of the more extreme examples.”  

She added that just because someone is in a position of authority that does not mean they should be open to abuse.  

David Higgins a founder of the Norfolk Suffolk Cyber Security Cluster said the bill “missed the point” and failed to "stem the tsunami of online and digital scams". 

"Online scams have a devastating financial and emotional impact on victims and they have escalated hugely during the pandemic." 

Internet security specialist David Higgins. Picture: Archant

Internet security specialist David Higgins. Picture: Archant

He added: “After a quick skim through the details, I think the government has missed a trick - they need to educate people on cyber hygiene - they need to sort out the Critical National Infrastructure security, which is woeful, they need to sort out security on the Internet of Things - hi-tech doorbells, cameras, fridges, lighting systems - and the security on people - all are very hackable.  

“Scams have been around for thousands of years - they work on the same principles - just in a different guise - they are harmful and hurtful; sadly this proposed legislation is only just skimming the surface and will do little to help the victims of the crimes.” 

What's in the draft Online Safety Bill?

  • Makes Ofcom the new online safety regulator, with the ability to fine companies up to £18m or 10pc of their annual global turnover - whichever is greater
  • Gives Ofcom the power to block access to websites
  • Placing a duty of care on companies to improve the safety of their users online. This will require them to tackle illegal content on their services and to protect children from harmful content and activity online
  • The threat of criminal action against senior managers if tech companies fail to hold up their responsibilities 

  • 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.

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

  • Protections for "democratic content" such as journalism and political debate, to allow people to express themselves freely online