• The Online Safety Bill received Royal Assent on 26 October 2023, becoming the Online Safety Act 2023.

    The substantive provision in the act do not come into force straight away, and Ofcom (which is the online safety regulator) will first need to publish codes and practices to set out its guidance on how to best comply with the provisions of the act. Parliament will also need to introduce additional secondary legislation to bring the substantive provisions into force.

    The Government’s intention for the act is to make the UK the ‘safest place to be online’. However, we are yet to see how effective the act is in practice.

    What does it do?

    The Online Safety Act is the first of its kind in the UK, aiming to provide protection to children online and tackle illegal online content. It will mainly impact social media services and companies that host user-generated content. Such companies will be required to:

    • remove harmful and illegal content from their platforms
    • act quickly to prevent children (but not adults) from seeing harmful content
    • remove illegal content (for example content relating to self-harm, abuse, suicide and eating disorders).

    Prior to the passing of the act commentators questioned whether the impact on freedom of speech might outweigh the act’s possible positive consequences. For example, what may be considered ‘harmful’? It is clear that illegal content would be harmful, but how will it be determined what content should be classed as legal but harmful? Platforms will be expected to make and effectively implement rules around content that they deem harmful. They will be expected to act quickly to remove and censor any harmful content that breaches their rules.

    What do schools need to be aware of?

    Specifically relevant to young people (of school age) is the requirement the act places on social media service providers to enforce minimum age requirements and have in place age-checking measures. The act is designed to ensure that children under the age of 13 cannot access social media platforms.

    It is important for schools to understand that the act does not remove the current safeguarding duties placed upon them. These duties are not being transferred to tech companies. The act is to form part of the effort and measures already in place to protect children.

    Schools should continue to make efforts to ensure their pupils are safe online. School curriculums should teach students how to stay safe online, such as how to recognise online risks. It is also important to teach students that not everything they see online is true, and that they should evaluate or question what they see online. Students should learn what is acceptable online behaviour and what is not acceptable, and how they should act if they come across unacceptable behaviour (for example, having appropriate channels in place for them to seek support and report the behaviour).

    What action should schools take?

    If schools are questioning what should be included in their curriculum to address the online safety of young people, the Department of Education has provided useful information on ‘Teaching online safety in schools’.

    Suggestions include, teaching children how to recognise techniques used to persuade or manipulate others online, how to recognise fake websites and scam emails and how an individual can create a ‘digital footprint’ and both the positive and negative aspects of this.

    For more information see: Teaching online safety in schools guidance.

    It is likely that following the passing of this act the online safety section in ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ (last updated in September 2023) will grow or separate guidance will be passed expanding on key elements of the act.

    Educators should continue to monitor developments surrounding online safety law and relevant guidance and work towards making their pupils as safe as possible online.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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