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Online Safety Bill: "a step in the right direction"

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Online Safety Bill: "a step in the right direction"

The Epilepsy Society has welcomed the publication of a new Bill which aims to promote online safety, but we believe more needs to be done to protect people with epilepsy from internet trolling.

After first promising to bring forward legislation to tackle online abuse almost five years ago, the government has today published its Draft Online Safety Bill.

This comes after a long and ongoing campaign by the Epilepsy Society to ensure greater protections for people with epilepsy who use social media. 

Following a series of co-ordinated attacks in May 2020 against the Epilepsy Society Twitter account, and the accounts of many of our supporters, we have been calling on the government to include the knowing dissemination of online material capable of causing a seizure in the definition of an ‘online harm’.

This campaign is known as Zach’s Law and is named after nine-year-old Zach Eagling who was the victim of malicious trolling while completing a 2.6km walking challenge to raise funds for people with epilepsy. We have additionally been urging the government to set clearer guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service on how to pursue internet trolls who have deliberately sought to cause seizures in people with epilepsy. 

While there is no specific mention of the trolling of people with epilepsy in the Bill, the draft does define harm as “content which may reasonably be assumed to particularly affect people with a certain characteristic or to particularly affect a certain group of people.

The Epilepsy Society is today calling on the government to provide greater clarity as to what falls under “certain” characteristics, and we will continue to pursue officials on this matter. 

Speaking after the Bill’s publication, Nicola Swanborough, Head of External Affairs at the Epilepsy Society, said:

This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Only a robust combination of legislative and regulatory frameworks will force the social media companies to do what we have continually been asking them to do – safeguard their users.

“We will still be seeking further clarity from the government about the definition of ‘certain characteristics’ to ensure that malicious online attacks targeted at people with epilepsy, are properly recognised.

“Epilepsy is unique in that people with the condition can be identified and targeted by those with ill intent to trigger seizures which can cause both psychological and physical harm. We will continue to work with the government to ensure that Zach’s Law is recognised as part of this long overdue Bill.” 

The legislation, which is set to be scrutinised by a committee of parliamentarians before being debated in the House of Commons, pledges significant powers for the new online regulator, Ofcom.

Ofcom currently regulates broadcasting, telecommunications and the postal industry in the UK. 

As part of the Bill, social media companies will be expected to take action against illegal content, but crucially also against content which is “legal but harmful.”

Platforms which fail to meet the standards set by Ofcom could face fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of their global annual turnover, whichever is higher. There will also be the potential for senior managers of social media companies to be made criminally liable for any breach of regulation, although this power will not immediately be enforced.

You can read more about our Zach’s Law campaign here