Online Safety Bill takes aim at app stores

By Luca Pavoni, Junior Consultant


After being passed between four prime ministers and five secretaries of state, the Online Safety Bill is finally on course to becoming enacted legislation later this year. The Bill, originally derived from the 2019 Online Harms White Paper, aims to achieve the Government’s manifesto pledge of making the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”.

Now, the Government is one step closer to delivering this promise after passing a crucial amendment that brings app stores into the scope of the landmark legislation.

At its core, the Bill will require social media giants like Meta and Twitter to remove illegal and banned content or otherwise incur large multi-million pound fines and possible criminal charges, including jail time, for responsible social media bosses.

The Bill has been lauded by online safety charities and activists as our virtual shining knight in armour against the dangers of the online realm. However, an important part of the digital ecosystem that the Government was initially reluctant to place in its crosshairs was the app store – the digital mobile shop used by millions to download and pay for content and services.

App stores are critical gateways for children to access the internet, with Ofcom reporting that children use their mobile phones to surf the web more than any other device. And with more children in the UK owning a mobile phone than those who don’t by age 10, regulating what children can browse on their phones is a challenge that almost all parents face.

App stores, dominated by an Apple-Google ‘duopoly’ according to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority and multiple international equivalents, have been accused of allowing children to install age-restricted apps and access inappropriate content without any verification procedures.  A report by Tech Transparency Project in 2021 found the “underage user could easily evade age restrictions in the vast majority of cases”, exposing them to a host of inappropriate apps, including those offering pornography and gambling services.

These apps can be advertised at 17+ on the Apple App Store, despite developers’ insistences that they are strictly adult-only. When an underage account attempts to download these apps, they are met simply with an ‘ok’ button to confirm they are over 18 without any verification required.

Through their inaction, app stores expose children to content that can have psychological, emotional and financial impacts. These risks have been identified by alarming reports, such as the Children’s Commissioner’s revealing that one in ten children had viewed pornography by the time they are nine years old; and that of the Gambling Commission, which found an average of one child per secondary school class had a gambling addiction or risked developing one.

In recent months, as the Online Safety Bill traversed through the House of Lords, a coalition of cross-party parliamentarians, industry stakeholders and children’s charities pressed the Government to include app stores in the Bill.

Baroness Dido Harding led the charge in the Lords, tabling amendments for legal duties to be placed on app stores to block children from accessing adult-only apps. Her proposals were backed by peers, like Lord James Bethell, who argued that app stores should be expected to prevent underage users accessing gambling and pornography just as corner shops are expected to refuse the sale of alcohol and cigarettes to children.

The Government listened.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which champions the Online Safety Bill, last month passed an amendment that finally brings app stores into the scope of the Bill, requiring firms to take action to reduce risk where necessary.

Under the amendment, Ofcom, the appointed regulatory body under the Online Safety Bill, will be required to conduct a review into the role app stores play as a gateway for children to access online services. Building upon a breadth of existing research, including that of the Tech Transparency Project, Ofcom will deliver its findings to the Secretary of State, who would be empowered to act upon Ofcom’s recommendations and impose legal duties on app stores without requiring a separate piece of legislation.

The amendment will join the rest of the Online Safety Bill as it crosses back to the Commons later this year - one step away from finally achieving Royal Assent nearly half a decade after it first began its legislative journey.

Though the Bill has remained a byword for controversy and has at times looked in danger of becoming uncontrollable by the size of its remit, this latest amendment suggest it is a piece of legislation more in touch with how the digital ecosystem works in practice. DSIT, by listening and working with peers has shown an understanding and deftness not always apparent amongst government departments. By doing so, it has also shown a foresight capable of standing up to the lofty ambitions that began this long process. The Government might now have a piece of legislation that is not just workable but capable of setting a precedent worldwide.

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