Harmful messaging offences added to online safety bill

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Sending “genuinely threatening” or “knowingly false” messages are among new criminal offenses being added to proposed online safety laws.

If passed, the government’s online safety bill could see social networks fined 10% of their global turnover if they fail to remove harmful content.

The latest changes mean social networks will also have to proactively find and block harmful content.

The bill also covers human trafficking, extremism, and promoting suicide online.

It already stated that websites – such as Facebook and Twitter – hosting user-generated content, would have to swiftly remove illegal content once it was reported to them.

Now, they will also have to put in place proactive measures to stop illegal activity.

In addition, three new criminal offenses have been added to the bill.

Genuinely threatening communications

Sending “genuinely threatening” communications such as a threat to rape, kill, or cause financial harm, would become a criminal offense.

It would also include coercive and controlling behavior as well as online stalking.

Being found guilty could result in a five-year prison term.

Harmful communications

Sending communications designed to cause harm when the context was taken into account would also become an offense.

The government gave an example of a domestic abuser sending an ex-partner a photograph of their front door to frighten them.

Offensive content with no intent to cause serious distress would not be illegal.

Knowingly false communications

This offense would cover “false communications deliberately sent to inflict harm”, such as a hoax bomb threat.

The government said the bill would not prohibit “misinformation” as long as those spreading it were unaware that what they were saying was false.

It gave the example of a social media post encouraging people to inject themselves with antiseptic as a fake coronavirus cure.

A court would have to prove the poster knew the information was false to convict them.

These aspects of the new bill would replace parts of previous legislation such as the Communications Act and the Malicious Communications Act, which were passed before the dawn of social media.

Digital secretary Nadine Dorries said she wanted the make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online while enshrining free speech”.

“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,” she said in a statement.

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