Tracy Black: Let’s seize chance to make a better online world

From shopping and meetings, to searching and streaming, growing amounts of our business and leisure activities are conducted online.

The online world has become a cornerstone of modern life, enabling us to stay in touch with those we know, while building communities with those we don’t. This has never been truer than during the pandemic: technology prevented some of the most vulnerable people from becoming isolated, helped children continue learning, and kept companies trading.

But sadly there’s a darker underbelly to online activity too. From hate to terrorist content, there are some digital dangers which can make online exploration a potentially hazardous business, and many of us harbour concerns about the way harm can be spread online.

So while the freedom we have to share digital content brings huge benefits, it’s also important to address the issue of exposure to harm. Put simply, better guards are needed for the modern world.

The UK’s Online Safety Bill has the potential to shake-up how we interact online. This piece of legislation could limit dangers and help build trust in the technologies we use every day.

Companies see this Bill as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an approach that supports the UK’s flourishing digital economy and makes us a world-leader in online safety.

Scotland’s businesses are taking this seriously: many are already developing and using tools to protect their users. But clearer guidance would help firms to ramp up their efforts.

Here it’s worth noting the reach of the proposed the Online Safety Bill. The UK Government’s own assessment suggests it will impact at least 24,000 businesses. The Bill will only be as effective as companies’ ability to implement it, so it will need to work for firms of all sizes across the UK.

Get this wrong, and investment in the UK’s booming tech industry could take a hit at the worst possible time – just as we look to rebuild a high-growth, innovative economy from the devastating impact of the pandemic. Last year, the UK secured $1billion of venture capital investment – the third highest in the world – in tech alone and is home to 77 ‘tech unicorns’ valued at over $1 billion.

To take a lead on online safety and kickstart a wave of new companies that boost our country’s competitive edge, the UK Government must address three crucial areas.

First, it’s vital to clarify the full reach of the Bill. While the focus of the legislation is on user-generated content, this categorisation isn’t clear. For example, while SMS and emails are currently not in scope, other private messaging services could be. Better guidance would help businesses implement any necessary changes quickly and tackle harm more effectively.

Second, regulations should be proportionate. That means measuring the risk content poses alongside its reach. Cumbersome rules for companies where the risk of harm is extremely low will only stifle industry, innovation and inward investment.

Third, the Online Safety Bill must outline how firms should deal with content that is harmful but legal. Companies wholly agree they should have accountability when it comes to removing illegal content like hate crime. But things get hazy in the absence of well-defined boundaries enshrined in law. One example is misinformation, which can be deeply subjective in some instances. Elected lawmakers should provide clarity not leave firms to grapple with grey areas.

The Online Safety Bill presents a landmark opportunity to shape how we all interact on the internet for the better. It’s been years in the making and has never been more important. Let’s work together to make sure we get it right.

Tracy Black is director of the Confederation of British Industry in Scotland

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