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U.K. drops requirement for tech companies to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content from online safety bill

LONDON – The British government on Monday abandoned a plan to force tech firms to remove internet content that is harmful but legal, after the proposal drew strong criticism from lawmakers and civil liberties groups.

The UK has watered down its online safety bill, an ambitious but controversial attempt to crack down on online racism, sexual abuse, bullying, fraud and other harmful material. Similar efforts are underway in the European Union and the United States, but the United Kingdom’s has been one of the most comprehensive. In its original form, the bill gave regulators broad powers to target digital and social media companies such as Alphabet’s GOOGL,
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Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

Critics have raised concerns that a requirement for the biggest platforms to remove “legal but harmful” content could lead to censorship and undermine free speech.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, which took office last month, has now dropped that part of the bill, admitting it could “overcriminalize” online content.

Michelle Donelan, digital secretary, said the change removes the risk that “tech firms or future governments could use the laws as a license to censor legitimate views.”

Instead, the bill says companies must set out clear terms of service and stick to them. Companies will be free to allow adults to post and view offensive or harmful material, as long as it is not illegal. But platforms that promise to ban racist, homophobic or other offensive content and then fail to keep the promise could be fined up to 10% of their annual turnover.

The legislation also requires firms to help people avoid content that is legal but could be harmful — such as the glorification of eating disorders, misogyny and other forms of abuse — through warnings, content moderation or other means.

Companies will also have to show how they enforce user age restrictions designed to prevent children from viewing harmful material.

The bill still criminalizes some online activities, including cyber-flashing – sending someone unwanted explicit images – and epilepsy trolling, sending flashing images that can trigger seizures. It also makes it an offense to assist or encourage self-harm, a move that follows a campaign by the family of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old who ended her life in 2017 after self-harming and viewed suicidal content online.

The government hopes the changes will be enough to get the bill through Parliament, where it has languished for 18 months amid widespread opposition.

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