Internet security laws are strengthened to combat Russian and hostile state disinformation

  • Social media platforms will need to proactively seek out and remove misinformation from foreign state actors that harms the UK
  • Companies that fail to tackle online interference from rogue states face huge fines or are blocked

Social media platforms will have to proactively tackle disinformation from Russia and other states aimed at undermining the UK as part of changes ministers are making to new internet safety laws.

Many people are concerned about the threat that malicious state-linked disinformation poses to British society and democracy, particularly in the wake of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

The Government will table an amendment to link the National Security Bill to the Online Safety Bill – reinforcing this historic and pioneering internet legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online . A new foreign interference offense created by the National Security Bill will be added to the list of priority offenses in the Online Safety Bill.

This means that social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites that allow people to post their own content will have a legal obligation to take proactive and preventative measures to identify and minimize people’s exposure to State-sponsored or state-related disinformation aimed at interfering with Britain.

This includes countering material from fake accounts created by individuals or groups acting on behalf of foreign states to influence democratic or legal processes, such as elections and court proceedings, or to disseminate hacked information in order to undermine democratic institutions.

Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries said:

The invasion of Ukraine has once again shown how Russia can and will weaponize social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions, often targeting the very victims of its aggression. We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets to use the Internet to wage hostile online warfare unhindered.

That’s why we’re strengthening our new internet security protections to ensure social media companies identify and eliminate state-sponsored misinformation.

Security Minister Damian Hinds said:

Online information operations have become an integral part of state threat activity. The objective may be variously to spread untruths, to sow confusion, to undermine confidence in democracy or to sow division in society.

Misinformation is often seeded by multiple fake personalities, with the goal of getting real users, unknowingly, and then “sharing” it. We need big online platforms to do more to identify and disrupt this type of coordinated inauthentic behavior. This is the purpose of this proposed amendment to the law.

Platforms will need to conduct risk assessments for illegal content under the foreign interference offense and put in place proportionate systems and processes to mitigate the possibility of users encountering such content.

This could include measures such as making it harder to create fake accounts on a large scale or cracking down on the use of bots in malicious disinformation campaigns. When moderating their sites, companies will need to make judgments about the intended effect of content or behavior that they have reasonable grounds to believe is state-sponsored misinformation and whether it amounts to a false statement.

These judgments could be based on patterns of behaviors and tactics used, or aided by relevant knowledge of the political and geopolitical context, for example state-sponsored media narratives being amplified online.

To help platforms fulfill this obligation, companies will also be able to rely on the codes of practice of the regulator Ofcom. Ofcom will have the power to fine companies that fail to act up to ten percent of their annual worldwide turnover, force them to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites.

Foreign interference offense

Under the National Security Bill, which is due in Parliament for committee stage next week, a new offense of foreign interference is established to deter and disrupt state threat activities, including including state-related misinformation that undermines the UK.

This will make it illegal for a person to engage in conduct for, on behalf of or with the intent to benefit a foreign power in a way that interferes with the rights of the UK, discredits our democratic intuitions, manipulates the participation of people to them and harms the security or interests of the United Kingdom.

The offense includes conduct that consists of making false or misleading statements, including using information that is true but presented in a misleading manner or misrepresenting a person’s identity.

Online Safety Bill as drafted

As currently drafted, the online safety bill will already require companies to take action against state-sponsored disinformation that is illegal and harms people, for example if it contains a threat of death. Companies whose services are likely to be accessed by children will need to protect underage users from harmful misinformation and disinformation.

Additionally, Tier 1 companies will have to tackle misinformation and disinformation that is harmful and that adults might have access to — such as dangerous anti-vaccine theories or bogus coronavirus cures. They will need to clearly state whether this content is allowed in their terms of service and apply them consistently.

The bill provides strong protections for people’s rights to free speech. Clause 19 provides specific safeguards against excessive removal of content and requires platforms to duly respect users’ right to freedom of expression. Companies will also have a duty to ensure they have effective and accessible reporting and redress mechanisms so users can easily challenge unwarranted content takedown decisions.


Notes to Editor

  • Since the list of priority offenses in Schedule 7 of the Online Security Bill cannot include offenses that are not yet in force, the amendment was tabled in the National Security Bill to ensure that once the Online Safety Bill receives Royal Assent, it will contain the most up-to-date version of the foreign interference offence.
  • The list of priority offences, which may be updated later by regulation, already includes:
    Terrorism, Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, Assisted Suicide, Death Threats, Public Order Offenses, Harassment and Stalking, Hate Crimes, Sale of Illegal Drugs and Weapons, Human Trafficking Offenses , exploitation of prostitutes for profit, extreme pornography, revenge pornography, income from criminal offenses and fraud offences.
  • More information on the Home Office National Security Bill.

Donald E. Patel