The Draft Online Safety Bill and the legal but harmful debate – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Related inquiry: Online safety and online harms

Date Published: 24 January 2022

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The UK Government’s Draft Online Safety Bill is an ambitious, complex and contested piece of legislation. Through a series of interlocking duties and suite of enforcement and redress powers and mechanisms, it aims to make user-to-user and search service providers more accountable for the decisions they make when designing the platforms and the systems and processes that govern them. We welcome the Government’s decision, as per our previous recommendation, to publish the Draft Bill in full and engage proactively with the various committees, including our own, who have conducted comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny.

However, there are several areas where existing pre-legislative scrutiny has missed an opportunity and must go further. We have urgent concerns that, as currently drafted, the Bill neither adequately protects freedom of expression nor is clear and robust enough to tackle the various types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services. We have proposed several amendments to the definition and scope of harms covered by the regime that would bring the Bill into line with the UK’s obligations to freedom of expression under international human rights law. We also recommend that the Government proactively address types of content that are technically legal, such as insidious parts of child abuse sequences like breadcrumbing and types of online violence against and women and girls like tech-enabled ‘nudifying’ of women and deepfake pornography, by bringing them into scope either through primary legislation or as types of harmful content covered by the duties of care.

Moreover, we have found that current provisions that provide Ofcom with a suite of powers and users with redress are similarly unclear and impractical. We urge the Government to provide greater clarity within the Bill on how and when these powers should be used to ensure they are both practical and proportionate. Finally, we are concerned that the Joint Committee’s recommendation to replace independent, elected, cross-party select committees with a joint committee created by Government would undermine, rather than enhance, parliamentary scrutiny.