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Online Safety Bill: Three new criminal offences to be added as government cracks down on revenge porn, hate crime and fraud

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Three new criminal offences are set to be added to the Online Safety Bill as the government strengthens its bid to stamp out illegal content.

The bill, which is currently going through parliament, aims to introduce obligations on social media firms to keep their users safe and protect them from harmful material.

How these companies comply with the law will be monitored by Ofcom which will become the online safety regulator.

What is the Online Safety Bill and why are some people worried about it?

Under the new changes, crimes such as revenge porn, people smuggling, fraud and the sale of illegal drugs or weapons will be added to a list of priority offences.

This means online platforms will be forced to remove any content relating to the offences and proactively work to stop their users from encountering it.

Other areas added to the priority list are hate crime, promotion or facilitation of suicide, sexual exploitation, and the sale of illegal weapons.

So what are the three new criminal offences being added?

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries confirmed the three criminal offences are to be included after reports from parliamentary committees warned the bill required strengthening and further clarity.

They have been recommended by the Law Commission in an effort to make the law fit for the internet age, the government said.

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• The first is a “genuinely threatening” communications offence, which covers communications that are sent or posted to convey a threat of serious harm.

This is designed to capture online threats to rape, kill and inflict physical violence or cause people serious financial harm.

It aims to better protect the likes of celebrities, MPs and other public figures who receive harmful online hate.

Those found guilty of this offence could face up to five years in prison, under the new changes.

• The second is a harm-based communications offence, which hopes to make it easier to prosecute online abusers and better address forms of violence against women or girls.

This will carry a maximum sentence of two years behind bars.

• An offence for when someone sends a communication they know to be false with the intent to cause harm is the final crime to be added to the bill.

Although there is a similar offence included in another act of parliament, this one will cover the likes of hoax bomb threats or spreading harmful COVID-19 misinformation.

If found guilty, a person could face up to a 51-week sentence under the changes.

‘Safest place in the world to be online’

British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries arrives at the Cabinet office in London
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Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries will be speaking to Sky News about the Online Safety Bill from 9am today

“This government said it would legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while enshrining free speech, and that’s exactly what we are going to do,” Ms Dorries said.

“Our world-leading bill will protect children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.”

Even further strengthening needed, says Labour

Despite the changes, Labour has said the bill needs to go further to protect users by implementing tougher sanctions for senior executives at firms who breach the new laws.

The draft bill has proposed having criminal liability for senior managers as a secondary power which could be introduced two years after the implementation of the bill.

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Warning over online safety bill

But ministers have since said they want to accelerate this to within three to six months of implementation.

“The Online Safety Bill is too weak to make big tech firms sit up and take notice, and ensure that hate, crime and child abuse are stamped out in the online world,” said shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell.

“The regulator Ofcom will be taking on some of the biggest tech firms in the world.

“It’s a David and Goliath situation, and Ofcom must have access to the full range of tools in its belt, including making top bosses criminally liable for persistently failing to tackle online harms.”

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