UK’s Online Safety Bill on pause pending new PM

A major populist but controversial piece of U.K. legislation to regulate internet content through a child safety-focused frame is on pause until the fall when the government expects to elect a new prime minister, following the resignation of Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader last week.

PoliticsHome reported yesterday that the Online Safety Bill would be dropped from House of Commons business next week with a view to being returned in the autumn.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) denied the legislation was being dropped altogether but the fate of the bill will clearly now rest with the new prime minister — and their appetite for regulating online speech.

Reached for comment, DCMS confirmed that the bill’s final day of report stage will be rescheduled to after the summer recess — suggesting it had lost out to competing demands for remaining parliamentary time (without specifying to what).

“The Online Safety Bill will continue its journey through the House of Commons in the autumn as a result of the parliamentary timetable,” a DCMS spokesperson told us.

The department also made a point of reiterating that the legislation intends to deliver on the government’s manifesto commitment to make the U.K. the safest place in the world to be online while defending freedom of speech.

But critics of the bill continue to warn it vastly overreaches on content regulation while saddling the U.K.’s digital sector with crippling compliance costs.

Digital rights groups have seized on the bill’s ‘pausing’ to urge a rethink, while child safety groups and the opposition Labour Party have decried the latest delay in legislation that’s already been years in the making.

Index on Censorship called the bill “fundamentally broken”, with CEO, Ruth Smeeth, telling the BBC: “The next prime minister needs a total rethink. It would give tech executives like Nick Clegg and Mark Zuckerberg massive amounts of control over what we all can say online, would make the U.K. the first democracy in the world to break encrypted messaging apps, and it would make people who have experienced abuse online less safe by forcing platforms to delete vital evidence.”

The call was echoed by the Open Rights Group’s CEO, Jim Killock, who dubbed the bill “a mess” — arguing in a tweet that it “threatens to implement pervasive monitoring and limit legal speech”.

But in a response given to the BBC, children’s charity, the NSPCC, said passing laws to protect minors online remains “crucial” and “vital” — adding that “this legislation should be a cornerstone of any government’s duty to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe”.

In a statement responding to the delay, the Samaritans also urged the government to “ensure it prioritises making the Online Safety Bill law as soon as possible otherwise we lose an opportunity to save lives with every day that passes”.

Earlier abortive government plans to mandate age checks for accessing pornography websites (dating back to Digital Economy Act 2017) — which were dropped in 2019, after a string of delays — had been revived in the Online Safety Bill, meaning some of the provisions in the bill date back around five years at this point but still haven’t made it into law.

Other provisions date back a few days as the government has been coming with a steady flow of amendments and additions — which critics argue is another sign the bill is an incoherent mess.

A fresh delay to the legislation caused by a change of Tory leader — and potentially a change of government if an election is called sooner than expected — could further stall progress.

Remarks by one leadership hopeful, Kemi Badenoch, critizing the legislation — including in her launch speech earlier this week, when she said the government should “not be legislating for hurt feelings”; and in follow up comments on Twitter yesterday where she appeared to suggest she favored dropping the bill entirely, saying it’s in “no fit state to become law” — quickly stirred up internecine ‘blue-on-blue’ fighting, with Nadine Dorries, the current (but perhaps not for much longer) sectary of state at DCMS, tweeting back at Badenoch to ask her for the receipts to underpin her claim.

Damian Collins, a fresh-in-post DCMS minister for tech and the digital economy — as a result of Johnson plugging gaps in government posts following the droves of resignations that preceded his own — also tweeted pointedly to rebut Badenoch. His brief at the department includes delivering the Online Safety Bill (though it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll survive a future leader’s ministerial reshuffling).

“This is completely wrong,” Collins told her in a directed tweet, before pressing her to stand up her claim that the bill requires the removal of legal speech. He went on to argue — to the contrary — that the bill enables the government, for the first time, to “set safety standards online based on our laws” — before adding: “Why would you want to stop that.”

While Badenoch hasn’t (so far) offered any references to back up her critique of the bill, tech industry watchers and IT law and policy experts were quick to offer up some specific examples to fill the vacuum…

While such public disputes don’t make the government look unified, Badenoch, a relative unknown — who hails from the rightwing of the Tory Party — is considered to have a slim chance at winning the leadership contest.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak is still considered the front runner but trade minister, Penny Mordaunt, generated the most momentum after yesterday’s ballot of Tory members — with 67 backers vs Sunak’s 88 — and she (currently) looks to have the best shot at grabbing the crucial second place slot.

However there are still a number of further ballots to go to slim the field.

Only the top two candidates will be put forward to the wider Conservative Party membership for a final vote this summer to decide who will be party leader and prime minister.

That person — the next U.K. prime minister — is expected to be in post by early September.

It’s worth noting that neither Sunak nor Mordaunt has focused on attacking the Online Safety Bill — thus far — in their leadership campaigns.

Indeed, Collins, who remains a staunch backer of the bill, has come out for Mordaunt. And in a fresh tweet, sent in the last few minutes, he says he’s had confirmation from the trade minister that if she becomes prime minister she will “continue” with the bill.

Sunak’s position on the Online Safety Bill is less clear but he was in cabinet when the legislation was introduced to parliament so has been, collectively, working to pass it alongside his (then) cabinet colleagues (including Dorries, the bill’s biggest champion). So he does not look like an obvious candidate to make gutting the legislation a priority, were he to win.

His leadership launch speech also included a reference to the problem of the disproportionate amount of abuse directed at women and girls — and amping up protections for women and girls has been a claimed aim for the bill (whether it could deliver is another matter). Hence, for example, the addition of a new law against cyberflashing which the government announced in March.

In any case, if the leadership race ends up as a run off between Sunak and Mordaunt, polls of Conservative Party members suggest she would easily see off the former chancellor.

While Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who placed third with 50 votes in the last MPs ballot — meaning she may also stand a chance of getting into the last two — has gained Dorries’ (very public) endorsement. Truss was also in cabinet when the bill was introduced. So reports of the death of the Online Safety Bill may prove premature.

Additionally, given how much cross-party support there is for safety legislation any prime minister who moved to scrapped the plan entirely would face no shortage of criticism from within parliament — as well as risking anger from voters if they are perceived to be failing on child safety — which may also give the next leader, whoever they are, pause for thought.

For now, though, the bloated, ‘kitchen sink’ bill is yet another casualty of the post-Brexit chaos that’s just sunk its third Tory PM in six years.

This report was updated with additional comment