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Government pledges to tackle online abuse

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Government pledges to tackle online abuse

The Government has promised that Ofcom will have “a suite of enforcement powers” to tackle online abuse against people with epilepsy.

In a letter to the Epilepsy Society, Baroness Williams of Trafford, the Minister for Countering Extremism, pledged that Ofcom will be granted substantial powers to tackle online hate and internet trolling.

The minister, who works within the Home Office, said that Ofcom’s powers will include  “substantial fines, business disruption measures and the power to block non-compliant services from being accessed in the UK.” 

She also noted that the Government may seek criminal sanctions against senior leaders of companies which fail to comply with requests from Ofcom.

Nicola Swanborough, Acting Head of External Affairs at the Epilepsy Society said: “While many of these measures are welcome, it remains to be seen if the fines will be ‘“substantial’” enough to impact multinational social media companies, which include some of the wealthiest corporations in the world.

“We very much  hope that a new duty of care will mean that there is something more than the law of the jungle to safeguard users on social media, particularly people with epilepsy who are targeted by trolls sending seizure-inducing tweets.

“But we also need to see this type of crime recognised as an online harm – Zach’s Law - in the Government’s Online Safety Bill. Malicious posts are online missiles that can be launched without recrimination. It will take a combination of the law and the regulators to bring order in a lawless environment.”

In December, Ofcom was appointed as the regulator for online harms, although its regulatory framework has not been confirmed. 

The Online Safety Bill, which will seek to formalise Ofcom’s powers, is expected to be debated in Parliament later this year.

Baroness Williams also acknowledged that online abuse is a global problem. She confirmed that upcoming online harms legislation will apply to any company which is “accessible to UK users” regardless of where they are based in the world. And she promised that “Ofcom will have all the powers necessary to take appropriate action” against multinational companies. She also pledged that the Government would work alongside “like-minded countries” around the globe to address online abuse.

However, the minister confirmed that the Online Safety Bill would not include the power to force social media companies to retain data relating to online abuse, such as the IP addresses of internet trolls. Baroness Williams claimed that these powers were already covered by existing legislation.

These developments follow years of online trolling of people with epilepsy. In May 2020, there was a coordinated attack by internet trolls against a number of epilepsy-related social media accounts, including the Epilepsy Society's Twitter account. The attack included the posting of flashing gifs and videos designed to triggers seizures in people with epilepsy. 

The Epilepsy Society continues to campaign for a safe, well-regulated internet, where people with epilepsy can use social media without receiving malicious abuse.  Just last week, the Daily Express backed our #ZachsLaw campaign, led by 9 year old Zach Eagling. 

The Government has repeatedly pledged to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online." This is a noble statement – and one we support. We will continue to campaign for this to become a reality.