July 7 2023
MPs have been warned that UK readers could lose access to Wikipedia as the site does not verify the age of its users, one of the requirements of the Online Safety Bill.
The government has been warned that the requirements of the new bill regulating the online world could lead to users losing access to Wikipedia. This is due to fears that the law could lead to “age-gating” the website, which currently does not require age verification.
In order to avoid it, peers have suggested adding a regulatory exemption to the legislation that would cover sites which are considered low risk for harm and provide a public good.
“There is a material risk that, without further amendment or clarification, then Wikipedia and other similar services may feel they can no longer operate in the United Kingdom,” said Lord Allan of Hallam.
The former Facebook director of policy in Europe argued that sites should be exempt from the scope of the Bill if they are for the purpose of public information, present minimal risk of harm, are non-commercial and have limited user-user functions.
The Online Safety Bill has been presented by the government as a ground-breaking law that will protect the privacy and safety of children online. The legislation is set to require tech giants to protect users from harmful content for the first time, with penalties for breaching the new rules including fines of up to 10 per cent of a firm’s annual turnover.
Although the legislation has been celebrated by children’s charities, free speech advocates and IT experts have criticised the requirement for companies to use “accredited technology” to scan users’ messages to identify and remove child sexual abuse material.
Tory backbencher Lord Moylan said he found it “remarkable” that the government has not made changes to the bill to try and address the problem of overly burdensome regulations on public interest services.
He suggested a similar exemption for public good services, as well as the ability for Ofcom to remove an exemption.
Independent crossbench peer Baroness Kidron added: “I am very concerned... I read the headline ‘The Online Safety Bill age-gates Wikipedia’ and I can’t see how it doesn’t by virtue of some of the material that can be found on Wikipedia.
“And I think what we’re trying to say is that there are some services that are inherently in a child’s best interests or in a child’s best interests according to their evolving capacity – if we had been allowed to put children’s rights into the Bill.”
However, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, a minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, argued that regulatory burdens will be “proportionate” to the risk of harm of a given site and the capacity of the organisation.
“I am, of course, sympathetic to the arguments that we must avoid imposing disproportionate burdens on regulated services and particularly that the Bill should not inhibit services from providing valuable information which is of benefit to the public,” he said.
He added the bill “has a broad scope in order to capture a range of services, but it has exemptions and categorisations built into it”.
“The requirements for platforms will be proportionate to the risk of harm and as such we do not expect the requirements for Wikipedia to be unduly burdensome,” he said. “It’s impossible for me to say that a particular service will certainly be categorised in one way or another, because that would give it carte blanche and we don’t know how it may change in the future, estimable though I may think it is at present.”
In April, Lucy Crompton-Reid, the chief executive of Wikimedia UK, warned the popular site could be blocked in the country because it will not carry out age verification if required to do so by the Online Safety Bill.
Crompton-Reid told the BBC it was “definitely possible that one of the most visited websites in the world – and a vital source of freely accessible knowledge and information for millions of people – won’t be accessible to UK readers (let alone UK-based contributors)”.
The Wikimedia Foundation has said it will not carry out age checks on users, despite the bill’s requirements, stating it would “violate” the organisation’s commitment to collect minimal data about readers and contributors.
At the time, a spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “The world-leading online safety bill has been designed to strike the balance between tackling harm without imposing unnecessary burdens on low-risk tech companies. Ofcom will take a reasonable and proportionate approach when monitoring and enforcing the safety duties outlined in the bill, focusing on services where the risk of harm is highest.”
Earlier this year, WhatsApp, Signal and other encrypted messaging services signed an open letter warning against the “unprecedented threat” to privacy posed by the UK’s Online Safety Bill, and warned they could leave the country should the bill pass in its current state.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has supported the bill, highlighting the growing numbers of grooming and child abuse image crimes recorded in the UK. For every day the bill is delayed, the NSPCC estimates that more than 100 grooming and other such crimes could have been recorded, the charity said.