Creating a safer online world: is further government regulation the answer?

Image © Marina Demidiuk | iStock

With users experiencing significant levels of harassment across digital platforms, the Online Safety Bill (OSB) is currently the only government regulation answer for online spaces

Yet, we can’t help but question – is government regulation the best way to ensure individuals are protected from digital threats? What are the potential shortcomings of this approach?

A survey from the Victims’ Commissioner’s website reveals that most online abuse is taking place on social media, with 60% occurring on Facebook. The survey also details how 9/10 victims were negatively impacted by the abuse in some way, with women more likely to be on the receiving end as demonstrated in Emily Atack’s recent documentary.

Online incidents of bullying and abuse are growing each year and are facilitated by the ease with which individuals can create anonymous and fake social profiles. There are now millions of fraudulent accounts and bots running amok across social media, with 1.3 million fake profiles being removed by Facebook in Q4 of 2022, and Instagram has an estimated 95 million fake accounts overall.

Instagram has an estimated 95 million fake accounts overall

When considering how we can counteract this threat, the Online Safety Bill is one way in which government regulation can tackle the problem, introducing a new set of laws to protect children and adults online.

What is the Online Safety Bill?

The government regulation legislation seeks to hold online platforms more accountable for the safety of their users. Social media platforms will be required to remove illegal content such as aspects of fraud, violence and hate crime – while also taking steps to prevent it from appearing in the first place.

They will also need to Implement age-checking measures to ensure users are only able to access appropriate content, along with allowing adults to filter the content they see on their feeds – opting out of posts they do not wish to interact with. Digital platforms that fail to carry out these measures risk being fined up to £18 million by Ofcom.

In theory, the legislation is a much-needed addition to help vulnerable online users. Yet, the common feedback from the public is that the bill fails to strike the balance between stringent rules and free speech. This government regulation has been in the works since 2019, with the UK public experiencing a pandemic and four prime ministers since its creation. Unfortunately, these setbacks and changes in leadership have caused the final result to be less than satisfactory.

A woman is working from her home office while attempting to home school her daughter.
Image © EllenMoran | Istock

The problem with social verification

When thinking about how businesses will align with government regulation, implementing verification and enforcing age assurance will be a struggle. Up until recently, social media platforms have remained reluctant to introduce strict verification processes, fearing it would dissuade users and impact their advertising revenue. However, both Meta and Twitter have recently evolved to introduce a subscription-based verification service.

However, by basing verification on a paid-for model, we find that the majority of users who are unwilling to pay are left without access to authentication features, remaining either at risk or presenting risk themselves. The arrival of the OSB or a similar piece of legislation may be the means necessary in which to open these features to all.

However, we must consider that, while the verification of online users is desirable to many, it is not wanted by all. Digital platforms have been a vital tool for oppressed or vulnerable groups, allowing them to organise social movements, as well as providing connections in the face of domestic violence and abuse. Forcibly removing anonymity from these Individuals places them at further risk and removes a relied-upon support network for many.

Weakened privacy and security

An important distinction within the OSB Is that the proposed changes are set to impact both public and private communications across digital platforms. With the majority of online services offering end-to-end encryption for private messages, this presents a major problem, as the technology for scanning messages secured by encryption doesn’t currently exist.

In 2021, Apple designed a potentially workable system that could scan photos for child sexual abuse material. However, critics swiftly counteracted that this offered a ‘back door’ to private correspondence and could be used by both the government and threat actors to monitor other types of content, causing the project to be halted.

Removing encryption entirely leaves all users and the data they transfer without security and privacy

Without another solution on the table, the only way to currently align with the government regulations is to break the encryption surrounding these comms completely – a move which many agree is unacceptable. The messaging app, Signal, has already stated it will stop providing services in the UK if the OSB undermines encryption, with WhatsApp also saying It will not comply with the bill.

This is because encryption is a vital tool for online safety, especially when it comes to digital comms. Removing encryption entirely leaves all users and the data they transfer without security and privacy, which includes sensitive information such as banking or healthcare details.

Work still to be done on the Online Safety Bill

With the criticism that the OSB has received, much still needs to be done in terms of sculpting an online world that is safe for its users. With the bill needing to reach the final stage by April 2023, parliamentary rules may cause the legislation to be dropped and started from scratch. While this is a huge setback, many would argue it is better than publishing it in its current state.

Going forward, it is clear that more responsibility should be placed on organisations to protect their users. However, they must remember that individuals want to feel in control of their data – offering a solution that treads the line between verifying identity and maintaining anonymity while keeping personal information secure will be a game-changer. However, if the government regulation leaves platforms with no other choice than to remove the encryption on digital communications, they are simply replacing one issue with another and impinging on a user’s right to privacy.

This piece was written and provided by Paul Holland, CEO of Beyond Encryption


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