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A Metaverse amendment to the UK’s Online Safety Bill?

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Today we’re returning to the UK’s Online Safety Bill, which has been slowly making its way through Parliament. Specifically, we’re looking at renewed calls for amendments to the Bill that ensure users are kept safe in the Metaverse. first reported on the first reading of the UK’s Online Safety Bill back in March. Originally announced in 2019, the Bill is intended to balance the safety and rights of internet users of all ages. It is meant to protect children from harmful content such as pornography, to limit people’s exposure to illegal content while protecting freedom of speech, and require social media platforms, search engines, and other apps and websites who allow people to post their own content, to protect children and tackle illegal activity, by removing content that is deemed to be “legal but harmful” , such as content that promotes self-harm, suicide, and eating disorders.

The Bill was then unceremoniously dropped from the legislative calendar in July to allow time to debate the equally contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would give ministers the power to scrap parts of the post-Brexit deal between the UK and the EU. Since the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons in March 2022, it has had its second reading (in April 2022) and was re-introduced in the Commons on 10 May 2022. The Bill then returned in December, made its way through the House of Commons, and is currently making its way through the House of Lords.

We previously reported on the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries’ statement that the new law would apply in the Metaverse and that any version of the Metaverse falls under the Bills’ broad definitions. The Bill places a duty of care on providers of user-to-user services, including undertaking “suitable and sufficient illegal content risk assessments” and to “to take or use proportionate measures to effectively mitigate and manage the risks of harm to individuals”. This would apply to any service provider that allows users to share user generated content with other users, think Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter, TikTok, but also Minecraft or Roblox, that allow people to build virtual spaces, which are the foundation the Metaverse.

The broad and vague nature of the Bill has resulted in contention and criticism from both sides of the argument, from those that are campaigning for new laws to protect children and vulnerable users from harmful internet content, to those concerned with the Bill’s impact on innovation, free speech and the far-reaching and excessive powers to be handed to government ministers.

The latest concerns come from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, who cite their ‘Safeguarding the Metaverse’ report and point out that the bill’s “definition of content does not reflect the breadth of live activity that can occur in these environments, nor does the current law adequately protect users from harmful immersive online experiences”, and call for the bill to be amended to “keep users safe in the metaverse, and other experiential environments.”

While the bill does not mention the Metaverse explicitly, the bill places a duty of care on providers of user-to-user services, specifically duties relating to risk assessments, safety, freedom of expression, user reporting and redress, and record-keeping and review. The Institution of Engineering and Technology makes the point that there are differences between the conventional Internet and immersive, Metaverse technologies, specifically tha the immersive experience “is not just one of viewing content, but of performing actions in real-time”. It is this difference, they argue, which means the bill needs to “address immersive technology on its own terms."

Institution of Engineering and Technology’s report highlights three key areas: “lack of supervision”, noting that virtual reality headsets are designed for immersive, ‘solo’ use, making it more difficult for parents to supervise what their children are encountering online; “new means of harassment”, noting how sensory and immersive of the Metaverse might provide new forms of online abuse; and “desensitisation”, noting that immersive experiences have the ability to desensitise participants to experiences that would have previously been shocking or frightening.

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Jessica Lewis/Unsplash

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