Catfish Crackdown: the UK proposes new Online Safety Bill

May 27, 2021

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Draft legislation published on 12 May 2021 outlines plans to fight online fraud and abuse in the UK.

What does this mean?

The draft bill proposes that sites that host user-generated content, such as social media sites and those which allow people to speak online via comments, on posts, or as reviews, would be required to moderate and remove harmful content. Such content would include for example “catfish” profiles that seek to extort money from victims, abusive posts, and investment fraud. The bill provides media regulator Ofcom, with the power to fine companies up to 10% of the global annual turnover if they were found not to be compliant, and to block access to the sites. It has been suggested that prison sentences for senior managers could also be introduced at a later date. 

What's the big picture effect?

While claims of fraud over social media may sound trivial, it has been reported that in the UK over £21m was lost to scammers using fake dating profiles in 2020, with an average of £7000 lost per victim. Meanwhile, over £135m was lost to investment fraud. The bill is a step in the right direction for fighting these crimes, but not everyone thinks that the bill goes far enough. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) for example, has warned that it does not provide comprehensive protection to children who may be using social media. 

What this proposed legislation does do, however, is require social media companies to take greater responsibility for the content on their platforms.  What is not clear is who is to determine what is considered “harmful”, as the subjective nature of the word could create wide variations in interpretation. In addition, critics of the bill have warned that it could limit free speech as well as create legal and operational difficulties for companies, for example how companies will police the content on their sites – will they need to hire a team of monitors who review all posts? If so, this presents a very high burden for companies as large as Facebook and Twitter. Such a burden may make it too difficult for businesses to operate and may discourage innovation.  

The government claims that the new bill will keep children and other vulnerable people in society safe and combat abuse, however, the question to be asked here is whether this bill, which goes a lot further than the EUs proposed Digital Services Act, goes too far or not far enough? 

Report written by Julie Lawford

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