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Sports Q&A - I've heard lots of noise about the Online Safety Bill, but is it relevant to sport?

15 September 2021

Q: I've heard lots of noise about the Online Safety Bill, but is it relevant to sport?

A: There has been a lot of press about the Online Safety Bill (sometimes referred to as the proposed “Online Harms” legislation as a result of the name of the white paper that preceded it). The Bill is the government’s answer to the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto commitment “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression”. It has generated a lot of interest, not least due to the fact that Ofcom will have powers to issue fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of qualifying worldwide revenue (whichever is higher) for non-compliance, and because of the clear attempts to ensure that entities normally outside the UK’s jurisdiction but which target the UK, will need to comply.

The Bill aims to help protect young people and clamp down on racist abuse online, whilst at the same time safeguarding freedom of expression. A difficult balance. It seeks to do this by introducing a duty of care, focusing on the prevention of harmful and illegal content, for “regulated services”. At the moment the Bill defines regulated services only as “user-to-user” (ie social) platforms and search engines. 

So is the Bill relevant if you’re an athlete, sports club/team, event, governing body, international sports federation or other sports business? 

Yes. Although the Bill is no doubt intended to regulate the major players such as Facebook and Google, the Bill absolutely will be relevant to sports entities, if they have their own platform(s) which allow “user to user” social interaction – eg if you have a website or app which allow fans to upload content, and other fans can view or otherwise ‘encounter’ that content, this will be a “regulated service” and you’ll need to comply with the duty of care. (Note, however, that simply allowing users to review, comment on, or like your own content is exempt).

Even if you don’t have your own UGC social platform which qualifies as a regulated service, and, for example, you simply use third party social platforms (eg Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), it’s still worth being aware of the proposals in the Bill as it may be possible to use the legislation, once passed, as a tool to tackle the ugly social content that sport and athletes have fallen victim to in recent years.

Importantly, the Bill is relevant not only to UK-based sports entities. It applies to services that have a significant number of users in the UK; to services for which the UK is a target market; and to services that can be used in the UK by individuals where there are reasonable grounds to believe that there is a material risk of significant harm to individuals in the UK. (Hopefully the latter won’t be relevant to many sports entities, but the first two criteria are likely to apply).

Regulated services will need to take “robust action” to tackle illegal abuse, including swift and effective action against hate crimes, harassment and threats directed at individuals and keep their promises to users about their standards. As such, sports operating a regulated service will have to implement risk assessments, appropriate moderation, and enable swift take-down procedures when alerted to illegal content. There are also additional/enhanced duties proposed for regulated services that are likely to be accessed by children, and for the largest and most popular social media sites (which will be designated as “Category 1” services). These will need to act on content that is lawful but still harmful.  This includes abuse that falls below the threshold of a criminal offence, encouragement of self-harm and mis/disinformation. Although sports are unlikely to be classified as Category 1 platforms, it's useful to know that these biggest platforms will need to offer complaints procedures and provide for appropriate action to taken in response to such complaints – this complaints procedure may prove to be a useful tool to sports and athletes who are the victims of online abuse.

For completeness, search engines are also “regulated services” with certain duties, but it seems unlikely that this will be relevant to sports entities. Search functionality just within an entity’s own website is exempt.

If you want any further information on the Bill and how it may impact you, please do get in touch.


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