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26th Oct, 2023

What difference will Online Safety Act make to football?

Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari outlines below what difference the Online Safety Act will make to football and what will happen next following Royal Assent.

What’s the aim of the OSA?

The ambition of the OSA is to make the UK the safest country in the world to go online. A key aim is to bring the online world into line with real world so if something is illegal in the real world, it will be illegal online. This has meant that some new offences have been created, for example, around rape and death threats. The OSA also aims to balance individual rights to freedom of speech with freedom of choice, including the ability to go online free from harassment and discrimination.

What type of discrimination will be removed?

If it’s illegal for somebody to say something to you in the street, it will be illegal online. But online discrimination can also apply to emojis and pictures as well as words. There will be some discriminatory content that is not quite illegal either in the real world or online – it is awful, but lawful. The OSA will offer additional protection against that “awful but lawful” content online such as when there is reference to xenophobia, for example.

How will I be protected from seeing discriminatory content?

The OSA introduces a “triple-shield” for users. The first shield is where all platforms will have to swiftly remove illegal content when notified and, for the worst material, actively monitor posts to prevent users from seeing such content. The second shield is that where big platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter/X have terms and conditions that ban discriminatory content, they must apply those rules consistently and fairly. The third shield is that users must be provided with specific tools to enable them to filter out “awful but lawful” discriminatory content.

Will more online abusers be punished/prosecuted?

The law will be much clearer on what illegal discriminatory abuse is, which should help law enforcement. We believe that resources for enforcing these laws need to be better managed, for example having a centralised task force, as was deployed at Euro 2020. We will continue this dialogue with the government.

How will abuse from outside the UK be dealt with?

We know it can be very difficult to prosecute abusers from overseas so the aim is to limit how far that content goes. This is the reason why the big platforms will be obliged to monitor for illegal content and to provide users with tools to limit seeing “awful but lawful” content. We know that Australia, the United States and the European Union are considering or progressing similar laws.

How will social media companies be punished? And how likely is this?

All social media firms will be subject to regulation by Ofcom. If they are found to be in breach of any of these rules they can be fined up to 10% of relevant turnover. In 2022, the turnover of Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) was $116bn; the turnover of Twitter was $4.4bn. This is a tool that can be used more than once against the same company and has been used successfully over decades by other regulators to keep big companies in check. It is a big stick, and other measures can apply, but Ofcom must be given the resources to properly monitor the big platforms. 

What about anonymous users? Will they be forced to provide ID?

There are often good reasons why people innocently use anonymity online for their own protection, for example, young LGBTQ+ people in countries where being gay is illegal. The balance drawn is that platforms must offer the option for users to verify their own identity and the option for users to avoid unverified accounts. So, if you do not wish to engage with anonymous accounts, you have the option not to do so.

Will this cover abuse like player pile-ons?

If harassment is encouraged by individual accounts, it may constitute an offence. Otherwise, general abuse (for example about a player’s performance) is not specifically covered and can be managed through muting or blocking. But if big platforms prohibit abuse or harassment, it may now be more worthwhile complaining to them as they need to apply their rules fairly and consistently. 

If I’ve been abused, what can I do?

Crimes under the OSA would be prosecuted by local law enforcement agencies. The obligations of the social media companies and the ability to fine them would be managed by Ofcom. There is a provision that certain ‘super-complainants” under the OSA will be able to highlight to Ofcom any recurring themes that are not being dealt with by the platforms. It is anticipated that Kick It Out will be designated as a super-complainant on behalf of football.  

What happens next and who is responsible?

Parts of the OSA will gradually come into force over the next 18 months depending on the details of the Act. We will be pushing for government to go as fast as possible and for law enforcement and Ofcom to be resourced appropriately. Ofcom will be consulting and then issuing Codes of Conduct on a variety of issues including discrimination, hate speech, and more transparency from the social media platforms. We will be monitoring and contributing to these Codes.

Ultimately, social media companies are responsible for what happens on their platforms and this Act defines what those responsibilities are. But they do not need to wait to enforce their own terms and conditions which prohibit discrimination. They do not need to wait to give us the tools to avoid unwanted abuse. They can and should do that now. We will be holding their feet to the fire on providing those tools as quickly as possible. Collectively across football, we will be requesting urgent meetings with senior executives from Meta and X.

How can people who play, watch or work in football help?

We are trying to positively change online culture. This will not change overnight. So, as with all discrimination: if you see it or hear it, report it; whether that is to the platforms, to the Premier League, the EFL, the FA, Kick It Out or your club. We are all committed to kicking discrimination out of football and further collaboration and transparency across football will be needed.