Plans for new internet safety laws have been put on hold until a new prime minister is in place in the autumn. The Online Safety Bill aims to lay down rules in law about how platforms should deal with harmful content.
It had been in its final stages and was to be discussed in Parliament next week, but will now be paused until MPs return from their summer break. A government source confirmed to the BBC that timetable pressures meant the bill is being rescheduled.
Shadow culture minister Alex Davies-Jones said the delay was “an absolutely devastating blow and another example of the Tories prioritising their own ideals over people’s safety online”.
Campaigners seeking changes to the existing regulations expressed concern at the delay.
The bill is at report stage, which means MPs can discuss amendments. It was expected to clear the Commons later this month before proceeding to the House of Lords.
The bill’s aims are to:
>>> prevent the spread of illegal content and activity such as images of child abuse, terrorist material and hate crimes, including racist abuse
>>> protect children from harmful material
>>> protect adults from legal – but harmful – content
The legislation largely puts the onus on the tech giants, like Meta – previously Facebook – and Google, to figure out how it would meet those aims. It also empowers Ofcom as a regulator to police whether they do a good enough job.
Firms that fail to comply with the new rules could face fines of up to £18m, or 10% of their annual global turnover, whichever is highest.
The bill also requires pornography websites to use age verification technology to stop children from accessing the material on their sites, and there will be a duty for the largest social media platforms and search engines to prevent fraudulent advertising.
A government source suggested parliamentary time had been reduced because of the demand from the Labour Party for a formal vote of no confidence in the government and the prime minister.
Labour, which wants the PM to leave office immediately, had put forward a motion to hold a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Its attempt failed, although Boris Johnson has decided to give MPs a vote of no confidence in the government.
The government source said: “Parliamentary time got cut because of Labour’s pointless motion.
“It was either the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill or the second day of the Online Safety Bill report stage that got dropped to allow Labour to have time to play politics. The Online Safety Bill lost out.”
Labour’s Ms Davies-Jones rejected claims her party were to blame for the delay tweeting: “Parliamentary timetabling is entirely in the government’s gift”.
Ruth Smeeth, CEO of campaign group Index on Censorship and former Labour MP, welcomed the bill’s passage through Parliament being paused. She said: “This is a fundamentally broken bill – 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 UK 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 bill has also been criticised by Conservative ex-minister David Davis who this week described it as “extraordinarily controversial” and called for it to be delayed.
But Andy Burrows, from children’s charity the NSPCC, said the bill was a “crucial piece of legislation”. He said tech firms “have allowed harm to fester rather than get their house in order”.
Mr Burrows added: “Online regulation is therefore vital to force their hand and delivering this legislation should be a cornerstone of any government’s duty to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe.”
Meanwhile, the delay triggered an exchange between the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and one of the contenders to be Tory leader – and prime minister – Kemi Badenoch.
Mrs Badenoch tweeted that the bill was “in no fit state to become law” adding: “If I’m elected prime minister I will ensure the bill doesn’t overreach. We should not be legislating for hurt feelings.”
Ms Dorries, who has been overseeing the legislation, replied with a question: “Which part of the bill legislates for hurt feelings, Kemi?”