The online safety bill is a proposal to introduce new laws in the UK to address illegal and harmful content.
This includes imposing harsher penalties, such as jail sentences, on those posting illegal content (such as revenge porn), and legally requiring tech firms, such as Meta (previously Facebook), to prevent users from being exposed to such content.
The legislation would establish three new online communications offences (recommended by the Law Commission in July 2021) that will target “harmful and abusive emails, social media posts and WhatsApp messages, as well as ‘pile-on’ harassment where many people target abuse at an individual such as in website comment sections.”
The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, said: “We are listening to MPs, charities and campaigners who have wanted us to strengthen the legislation, and today’s changes mean we will be able to bring the full weight of the law against those who use the internet as a weapon to ruin people’s lives and do so quicker and more effectively.”
What are the new offences under the online safety bill?
A ‘genuinely threatening’ communications offence, where communications are sent or posted to convey a threat of serious harm.
According to a government press release, this offence is designed to “better capture online threats to rape, kill and inflict physical violence or cause people serious financial harm.” It will also address “coercive and controlling online behaviour and stalking, including, in the context of domestic abuse, threats related to a partner’s finances or threats concerning physical harm.”
A harm-based communications offence to capture communications sent to cause harm without a reasonable excuse.
This offence is expected to “make it easier to prosecute online abusers” as it is “based on the intended psychological harm, amounting to at least serious distress, to the person who receives the communication, rather than requiring proof that harm was caused.”
The government’s press release outlines that this will “address forms of violence against women and girls such as communications which may not seem obviously harmful but when looked at in light of a pattern of abuse could cause serious distress.”
An offence for when a person sends a communication they know to be false with the intention to cause non-trivial emotional, psychological or physical harm.
This offence covers “false communications deliberately sent to inflict harm, such as hoax bomb threats, as opposed to misinformation where people are unaware what they are sending is false or genuinely believe it to be true.”
How will the online safety bill protect women?
There are several aspects of the online safety bill which directly tackle women’s online safety. The proposed “’genuinely threatening’ communications offence,” has been designed to better capture online rape and death threats, which women disproportionately experience (according to research by Amnesty International).
This offence is also expected to recognise how coercive behaviour and domestic abuse can manifest online. Again, women are disproportionately the victims of online domestic abuse, as research by Women’s Aid found that 85% of respondents said the abuse they received online from a partner or ex-partner was part of a pattern of abuse they also experienced offline.