Online Safety Bill Remaining Stages

On Tuesday 17 January 2023 all the remaining stages of the the Online Safety Bill were debated in the House.   

This legislation must put in place a robust framework that tackles online harms so that everyone can use the Internet safely. The Bill will establish a duty of care on companies to improve the safety of users, overseen and enforced by Ofcom. The Government has said the new regulator, Ofcom, will produce easy to use and easy to understand guidance to avoid the need for individuals and smaller services to seek legal advice. It has also said the regulatory framework set out in the Online Safety Bill is designed to ensure that regulatory expectations on services are reasonable and proportionate to the severity of the potential harm posed and the resources available to the service. In my view, as well as focusing on the size of the online platform, the Online Safety Bill should focus on the risk of harm posed by the platform. Without this change, the Bill will not address some of the most extreme dangers online and it undermines the very structure of the legislation.

I would prefer to see the Bill adopt a systems approach based on outcomes to make it much stronger overall. Instead of targeting individual content, the Bill should go after business models, systems and policies that drive the impact of harm online. The business models of most social media companies are currently based on engagement, with more engagement making more money. This rewards controversy, sensationalism and fake news. I am also concerned by the significant powers the Bill in its current form gives to the Government, with a myriad of powers accorded to it throughout. I do not want to see the Government intrude on the independence of Ofcom or on regulation of speech issues. A number of amendments were put forward:

New Clause 4

New Clause 4 would allow the industry regulator Ofcom to set minimum standards for service providers’ duties relating to the safety of adults, which would be monitored annually. 

Safety duties protecting adults and society: minimum standards for terms of service

(1) OFCOM may set minimum standards for the provisions included in a provider’s terms of service as far as they relate to the duties under sections 11, [Harm to adults and society risk assessment duties], [Safety duties protecting adults and society], 12, 16 to 19 and 28 of this Act (“relevant duties”).

(2) Where a provider does not meet the minimum standards, OFCOM may direct the provider to amend its terms of service in order to ensure that the standards are met.

(3) OFCOM must, at least once a year, conduct a review of—
(a) the extent to which providers are meeting the minimum standards, and
(b) how the providers’ terms of service are enabling them to fulfil the relevant duties.

(4) The report must assess whether any provider has made changes to its terms of service that might affect the way it fulfils a relevant duty.

(5) OFCOM must lay a report on the first review before both Houses of Parliament within one year of this Act being passed.

(6) OFCOM must lay a report on each subsequent review at least once a year thereafter.

I voted in favour of this Motion, which was not passed, Ayes: 242, Noes: 310. 

Amendment 43

Amendment 43 would make all safety features provided by service providers on by default for all adult users.

In clause 12, page 12, line 24, leave out “made available to” and insert “in operation by default for”.

I voted in favour of this Motion, which was not passed, Ayes: 237, Noes: 316. 

The Bill will now move to the Next Stage: Second Reading in the House of Lords.