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Online abuse will go on unchecked if the Online Safety Bill is not passed

Social media giants have been unregulated for decades, allowing online abuse to go unchecked. The Online Safety Bill (OSB), once passed into law, brings with it a new era through regulating tech companies, but our government have put it on hold.

While legislation comes into force in other countries working towards a safer internet, while the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act begin to change the landscape within the EU, we are not looking at a safer UK digital landscape. We are looking at an unknown future for the OSB that has the potential to make meaningful changes to our online experiences.

Glitch exists because social media companies have failed to regulate themselves and instead, we have seen huge increases in levels of now seemingly normalised online abuse that is affecting our social discourse, our democracies, and our day-to-day lives. We know that online abuse disproportionately affects Black women and is also experienced in disproportionately high volumes by other marginalised and minoritised communities.

We have been calling for the OSB to reflect the gendered and racialised nature of online abuse to stop the trend of increasing levels of sexism and racism online, that has been silencing us for decades. Tech companies could bring in better measures themselves, but time and time again, they have refused to do so, despite high profile global commitments to tackle online gender based violence. Their business models, and the current lack of regulation or legislative framework challenging these models, means that companies like Twitter, like TikTok and Meta, Snapchat and Reddit, put profit over safety.

Though perhaps not deliberately, the very nature of how these platforms work means that they monetise hate and abuse against us and are legally free to do so. They know that this is the case and yet this pattern of growth over safety continues.

Under Theresa May’s government in 2019, the agenda to change the unregulated landscape began with the first draft paper and several years later has culminated in the current OSB. This legislation has been paused in its slow but steady progress through Parliament, due to the ongoing search for the new leader of the Conservative Party and the new Prime Minister.

This cessation in progress would allow a new Prime Minister and potentially a new Digital Secretary to strip back or possibly throw out the Bill altogether, despite the Conservative Party election commitment in 2019 to deliver the OSB and the often quoted commitments of the government to make ‘the UK the safest place in the world to be online’, as was their aim for this political agenda as far back as 2017. Five years is a very long time in the fast-paced tech landscape so it is no surprise that we have seen the problem worsening as we have waited for political action.

As legislative progress stalls in our country, the daily experiences of Black women online continues to be that of a hostile and abusive online environment. While shelved, the OSB cannot improve the experiences of our young people, or do more to tackle — often racist and sexist — misinformation and disinformation.

Being online is not a luxury, nor is it part of a ‘virtual’ experience distinct from our offline ‘real-life’ experiences. Abuse online affects our emotions, our bodies, our actions and the ways in which we interact with those around us both online and offline.

We are done with being silenced, being told to take ourselves off sites where we experience hate and abuse, as a way to mitigate these persistently negative experiences. We are tired of being told how to conduct ourselves ‘better’ so others will treat us with dignity and respect.

Regulating companies is about asking them to outline what they will and will not tolerate on their platforms that is within the realm of legal speech, and uphold their own community guidelines and terms of service, much like we would expect public spaces offline to outline their rules and enforce them. The OSB is not about making legal speech illegal online, as some fear. It is about holding the companies who own these platforms accountable, ensuring that they do what they say they will to create safer environments for the freedom of expression of all, not spaces that privilege the abuser and silence the voices of those of us who are receiving the abuse.

The Online Safety Bill needs to be improved to ensure the legislation is strengthened to create a safer online space, but putting it on hold and potentially throwing it out is dangerous. It does not allow the process of political scrutiny to continue to take place.

We hope that the Online Safety Bill will continue its journey through parliament in the Autumn, without this pause having caused any dire and irreparable consequences. To predict whether that can be the case will depend on which individual is chosen by the Conservative Party as the next resident of №10.