LAW CHANGE: Public sector comms people: the Online Safety Bill could be your friend

If you’re in any doubt as to the impact of monitoring social media have a word with someone who does it for the public sector.

They’ll see the benefit but they’ll also tell you about the horrendous abuse it can attract.

It’s certainly a problem. In late 2022, 47 per cent of the 300 public sector comms people I surveyed said that they saw verbal abuse or threats weekly and 7 per cent saw racist abuse every week. They’re appalling statistics.

That’s why the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill could be one of the most important pieces of legislation for them for several years.

A disclaimer. This isn’t legal advice. Talk to David Banks if you need that. But looking through the terms of the bill travelling through Parliament there is plenty to help public sector comms people.

In this post I’ll take you through the salient points and especially the protections the bill can offer. Yes, there was existing legislation. But what this does is create a series of fresh tools the beleagered comms person can use.

I’ll go through the most helpful parts of the legislation for you.

Protections for public sector comms

This is big chunk of legislation that will gladden the hearts of public sector comms people who are fed-up of being threatened.

Basically, section 160 of the act says that people break the law if they post something knowing it to be false or to cause ‘non-trivial’ psychological harm or physical harm and is likely to see the message.

However, there’s a cut-off point. You can’t prosecute if the issue happened more than three years ago. There’s also an exemption for recognised broadcasters and news publishers. The definitions of this are pretty tight so it excludes the kind of right wing shock jocks that tend to get banned from social media platforms.

Under section 162 of the proposed act, a threat of death, a rape threat, grevious bodily harm or the threat of financial loss.

There are a variety of penalties with the maximum being five years for the worst offences.

The rest of the act

There are other areas to the act. There’s plenty there that covers sending pictures of genitals or threatening to. There’s a lot about the responsibility on social media companies to act.

There’s more emphasis on social media companies to act on reports of harmful content and there’s more wide-ranging power for Ofcom to intervene.

How to use the act

If you work in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, this is something to pay attention to. Scotland isn’t by and large covered by this although bits of tidying up are.

Knowing the terms of the act is useful for frontline public facing comms people so they understand what protections they have.

Responsible heads of comms and managers need to know about the act so they understand what protections their teams can expect.

Aside from the comms team, this is also relevant for the comms team to know about so they can advise the under-fire chief executive or senior officer.

Finally, a working knowledge of the act will be useful in potentially raising the issue with your legal department. It’s quite possible that the duty solicitor responding to that out-of-hours email may be a conveyancing solicitor by day so sliding the act across to them tells them that you know what you’re talking about.

Having looked after social media accounts in the public sector I sympathise with people who switch on knowing they are likely to receive abuse of some sort. I’ve blogged about it many times before. It’s so important that the organisation stands up for its staff. This act is a clear line in the sand.

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