“The beautiful game?” The Online Safety Bill: responding to online abuse and threats

This week OFCOM issued a report disclosing what most of us already know, there is a dark side online to the beautiful game.

Whilst avid sports followers and social media users know this already (stating the obvious...?) the data disclosed by OFCOM’s machine learning analysis, does make for tough and eye-opening reading:

  • 2.3 million tweets were analysed in the first half of last season
  • Nearly 60,000 abusive posts affected 7 in 10 players (an average of 362 per day, one every four minutes)
  • Just 12 players receive half of all abuse (on average 15 abusive tweets daily)
  • Around 1 in 12 personal attacks targeted a victim’s protected characteristic, such as their race or gender

(Data from OFCOM.org.uk analysed with The Alan Turing Institute)

Tackling such abuse is on the Government agenda and The Online Safety Bill is attracting much airtime, but what is it and what does it intend to do?

The Online Safety Bill

The Online Safety Bill is a proposed Act of UK Parliament. The purpose of the Bill is to, amongst other things, create new criminal offences to make it easier for authorities to prosecute individuals who engage in online abuse. It would give authorities the powers to fine household named giants like Twitter, Google and Meta (owners of Facebook and Instagram), for failing to comply with new regulations on “lawful but harmful” content.

Section 151 (Harmful communications offence) is intended to replace section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 and section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988; it states that:

“(1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) the person sends a message (see section 154),

(b) at the time of sending the message—

(i) there was a real and substantial risk that it would cause harm to a likely audience, and

(ii) the person intended to cause harm to a likely audience, and

(c) the person has no reasonable excuse for sending the message.”

Section 152 concerns a proposed offence of sending a message containing false information, without reasonable excuse, in circumstances in which the person sending the message “intended the message, or the information in it, to cause non-trivial psychological or physical harm to a likely audience”. Section 153 concerns a proposed offence of sending a message, which “conveys a threat of death or serious harm”.

The Bill is currently awaiting a third reading in the House of Commons. Ostensibly, due to recent political events, this has now been put back to autumn 2022. However, some candidates in the ongoing Conservative leadership contest have expressed concerns about the impact that the Bill may have on free speech. There is, therefore, a real concern that the next UK Prime Minster may scrap the Bill altogether.

A civil alternative

Civil claims under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 against online abusers remain a credible option for sports persons facing abuse and threats. English courts have powerful tools available to assist victims, including Norwich Pharmacal orders, which can compel third parties to disclose the private information sitting behind anonymous accounts.

Is enough being done? Whilst footballers could look to the Protection from Harrassment Act 1997 and manage social media abuse by taking practical steps, such as blocking, reporting and approach social media platforms directly, tackling online abuse at present can be difficult (and stressful and distracting from the game). Even if one abusive account is shut down, a new anonymous alias is often quickly created.

Kevin Bakhurst, OFCOM’s Group Director for Broadcasting and Online Content stated: “Social media firms needn’t wait for new laws to make their sites and aps safer for users. When we become the regulator for online safety, tech companies will have to be really open about the steps they’re taking to protect users.”

It should be seen as a positive step that this data has been captured, analysed and has resulted in the spotlight being shed on the issue. We will have to wait and see how The Online Safety Bill progresses and of course how OFCOM tackle this when they become the regulator; they’ve certainly sent out a stark and much needed warning.

A link to the full OFCOM can be found here.

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