Some online scams included in Online Safety Bill

13 May 2021, 22:80   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

Draft legislation put forward by Government aims to tackle harmful user-generated content such as romance or investment scams.

Only frauds posted to platforms like Facebook or Snapchat are covered under the legislation, however, with cloned websites, advertising and email excluded.

The Government say those elements are not within the scope of the Bill, but campaigners say they have missed an opportunity to protect children and vulnerable people.

Other elements of the Bill include the ability for Ofcom to issue fines of up to £18m or 10% of a company's global turnover if firms fail to comply with the rules.

computer user worried woman

Online fraud

User-generated fraud is included in the draft Online Safety Bill which was included in the Queen's Speech earlier this week before being published in full.

Under the proposed legislation, online companies like social media firms will be responsible for tackling fraudulent content on their platforms.

This could include romance scams posted in Facebook groups, for example, or investment scams pushed by fraudsters on Twitter.

If a company fails to comply with the rules, they could be fined up to £18m or 10% of their global turnover (whichever figure is higher) by Ofcom who will be given new powers to ensure firms are fulfilling their duty of care to users.

There are also provisions within the Bill that could introduce a new criminal offence for senior managers of firms if companies don't respond positively to these efforts to improve online safety.

Does it go far enough?

Critics of the limitations of the draft legislation were quick to argue the Bill doesn't go far enough because it doesn't include cloned websites, email scams or scam advertising.

Campaigners have been urging the Government to include such things in the legislation, with a report from Money and Mental Health published in December 2020 pointing out that scams disproportionately affect those with mental health problems and scams can exacerbate mental health conditions too.

The authors of that report wanted the Government to include formal regulation of advertising in the legislation to ensure search engine companies and social media sites had a responsibility to protect customers from fake ads or fraudulent content posted there.

That isn't included in this draft Bill - the Government say it's beyond the scope of the Bill which is focused on user-generated content rather than other harms.

Online safety

The distinction between the user-generated content which is included in the Bill and other types of scam content which won't be covered is a fine line, and most people won't understand that difference.

Arguably, it could also provide some loopholes for scammers to operate through, although it's possible any unintended consequences will be spotted as the legislation works its way through the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Perhaps there is an unwillingness within the Government to tackle something like advertising which brings so much revenue to companies like Facebook and which they could greatly resist legislation.

Either way, it's clear this legislation has subtly changed course over the years of its development.

This bill is called the Online Safety Bill whereas the white paper preceding it was called the Online Harms White Paper.

Again, it's a subtle distinction, but perhaps the name change reflects the Government's focus on safety issues that are more easily quantifiable such as preventing children seeing dangerous content and tackling racial hatred.

"Harm" is a loaded term that means different things to different people, and there seems to be a lack of willingness from social media platforms and other providers to tackle frauds perpetuated through their sites.

We saw this a few weeks ago when talks between banks and other bodies to create a shared pot for refunding scam victims finally failed.

There are attempts being made to stop fraud and protect victims, but the Online Safety Bill doesn't seem to be the overarching solution it could have been if campaigners had got their way.

Find out more about how to spot an online scam.

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