Draft Online Safety Bill Contents


Background to the draft Bill

1.The safety of people online, particularly on social media, is one of the defining policy issues of our age. The major online services have become central to the way people around the world access news and information, do business, play games, and keep in touch with family and friends. These are highly profitable businesses, with a commercial model based on selling and targeting advertising. User data is collected and used to train their algorithms to maximise engagement and users’ attention. The length of time, and the frequency with which users engage with the platforms increase their value: more time, means more advertising reaches the users, which leads to more revenue for the companies. However, actively seeking to increase engagement through personalisation also has the power to create more harmful user experiences. For example, vulnerable people are more likely to see content which will increase their vulnerabilities and the more people interact with conspiracy theories the more of them they will see. The grouping together of users with similar interests can create environments which normalise hate speech and extremism. Design features that favour spread of information over safety facilitate the targeting and amplification of abuse.

2.Despite concerns that have been repeatedly raised about these problems, the companies whose systems and processes distribute this content have been unable or unwilling to address them successfully. Whilst it is true that hate and harm existed before the internet, and still would without it, the evidence is that these systems and processes have actively made things worse. We have already seen the power of online media to undermine confidence in public health organisations during a pandemic, erode the protections of children, target people with abuse and even work to undermine democracy itself. We welcome the Government’s decision to publish the draft Online Safety Bill and to open it up to pre-legislative scrutiny.

3.The draft Online Safety Bill is the result of an extensive public policy and parliamentary process, going back nearly half a decade. The draft Bill was published by the Government on 12 May 2021. It followed the Online Harms White Paper, published in April 2019 and the Government’s interim (February 2020) and full (December 2020) responses to the consultation on it.1 The White Paper itself was the result of a commitment made in the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, published in October 2017.2

4.The regulation of online platforms has been the subject of intense parliamentary scrutiny and inquiry in the UK and overseas. In many cases this has anticipated and driven Government action. In February 2019 the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee recommended in its Disinformation and Fake News report that service providers should not be able to avoid liability for content identified as harmful on their platforms, and that a “code of ethics” and an independent regulator with statutory powers should be created to oversee this.3 Later that year it published a further report on Addictive and Immersive Technologies which raised concerns about data driven online platforms which prioritise increasing user engagement with particular reference to online games, free to play games and extended reality.4 In January and March of the same year, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and House of Lords Communications Committee recommended that social media service providers should have a duty of care to the people that use their platforms.5

5.To give just a few of the many examples of parliamentary work since then, the DCMS Committee has maintained its interest on the issue through the work of its Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation. The House of Commons Petitions Committee has a long-standing interest in tackling online abuse, especially that directed against disabled people.6 The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media has examined the extent to which social media impacts young people’s mental health and wellbeing.7 The Treasury and Work and Pensions Committees have examined online fraud, whilst the Home Affairs Committee has taken evidence on racism and online harms more widely.8 The House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee’s report Digital Technologies and the Restoration of Trust, published in June 2020, warned about the impact of online disinformation and misinformation, and called for electoral law and media literacy education to be brought up to date for the digital age.9 The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee recently published a wide-ranging report on Freedom of Speech in the Digital Age that looked closely at the draft Bill. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also taken evidence on freedom of expression.10

6.During our inquiry, the revelations of former Facebook11 employee Frances Haugen, in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, contributed to intensified international interest in regulation in this area. The US Senate has conducted hearings on the protection of children on online platforms.12 The European Parliament has continued to scrutinise the twin proposals of a Digital Markets Act and a Digital Services Act.13 Parliaments across Europe have taken evidence from Ms Haugen. In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to journalists Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, and Dmitry Muratov, Editor-in-Chief of Novaya Gazeta, the Nobel Committee picked out their work exposing and combating disinformation and “trolling” online.14

7.What unites these pieces of work is a sense that self-regulation of large, online platforms has failed. Around the world, there has been a growing consensus that such platforms create a risk of harm against individuals and are taking decisions with societal impacts that should be taken by democratic governments and legislatures and by independent regulators. We talk more about this in Chapter 2.

Conduct of our inquiry

8.We were appointed on 22 July 2021 and met the following week to agree and publish a call for evidence. We received over 200 submissions of written evidence and held oral evidence hearings with over 50 witnesses. A full list of witnesses and evidence is at the end of the report. We are very grateful to everyone who contributed to our inquiry. We are also grateful to our specialist advisers: Jacqueline Hughes, Dr Charles Kriel and Dr Bertie Vidgen, for their support.

9.We are grateful to two academic institutions—the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) Department of Media and Communications and the Minderoo Centre for Technology & Democracy, University of Cambridge—for co-hosting roundtable discussions with us on safety by design (13 October 2021), age assurance and verification (27 October), and freedom of speech and effective regulation (3 November). We would like to thank everyone who assisted with and contributed to these events.15

10.Parliamentarians will be able to scrutinise the final Bill when it is introduced by the Government. At the same time, we recognised the extraordinary level of interest in the draft Bill and wanted to give an opportunity for colleagues to talk with us about their views. We are grateful to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Digital Responsibility and Regulation for agreeing to co-host a discussion event with us on 20 October, open to all parliamentarians. We would like to thank its secretariat for the logistical arrangements and colleagues from both Houses who attended the event.

11.The Committee also wanted to consider the draft Online Safety Bill alongside other proposed legislation with similar objectives. We undertook a short visit to Brussels on 8 November 2021 to meet with the European Commission, Alexandra Geese MEP, Interpol and others about international developments and the European Union’s proposed Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. We would like to thank everyone who met us or helped facilitate meetings for us during the visit. On 17 November our Chair met with Christel Schaldemose MEP, rapporteur on the Digital Services Act for the inquiry of the European Parliament Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection. On 22 November our Chair represented the Joint Committee in giving evidence to the French Senate Committee on European Affairs, at the invitation of Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly, as part of its inquiry on the EU Digital Services Act.

Structure of this report

12.In Chapter 2 we discuss the scale of harm being experienced online and the objectives and structure of the draft Bill. In Chapter 3 we look at the role of platform design, anonymity, and its relationship to harm, particularly societal harm. In Chapters 4 and 5 we examine the safety duties in respect of adults and children, online fraud and pornography. In Chapter 6 we discuss the scope of the draft Bill across types of providers and the exemption for paid-for advertising. In Chapter 7 we look at the draft Bill’s provisions in respect of freedom of expression, journalistic content and content of democratic importance. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 focus on the role of the regulator in enforcement, ensuring transparency and redress for users. Finally, in Chapter 11, we have a brief conclusion.

1 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office, Online Harms White Paper: Full government response to the consultation, CP 354, December 2020: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/online-harms-white-paper/outcome/online-harms-white-paper-full-government-response [accessed 12 November 2021]; Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office, Online Harms White Paper - Initial White Paper Response, December 2020: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/online-harms-white-paper/public-feedback/online-harms-white-paper-initial-consultation-response [accessed 12 November 2021]

2 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Internet Safety Strategy - Green Paper, October 2017: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/650949/Internet_Safety_Strategy_green_paper.pdf [accessed 12 November 2021]

3 Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report (Eighth Report, Session 2017–19, HC 1791)

4 Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, Immersive and Addictive Technologies (Fifteenth Report, Session 2017–19, HC 1846)

5 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health (Fourteenth Report, Session 2017–19, HC 822); Communications Committee, Regulating in a digital world (2nd Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 299); Carnegie UK, Internet Harm Reduction (January 2019): https://d1ssu070pg2v9i.cloudfront.net/pex/carnegie_uk_trust/2019/01/27135118/Internet-Harm-Reduction-final.pdf [accessed 12 November 2021]

6 Petitions Committee, Online Abuse and the Experience of Disabled People (First Report, Session 2017–19, HC 759)

8 Letter from the Chairs of the Work and Pensions and Treasury Committees to the Prime Minister, 21 July 2021: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6956/documents/81066/default/; Written evidence from the Work and Pensions Select Committee (OSB0020); Oral evidence taken before the Home Affairs Committee, 20 January 2021 (Session 2020–21), https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/1566/html/; letter from the acting Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, 1 December 2021, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/8077/documents/83017/default/

9 Democracy and Digital Committee, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust (Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 77)

10 Communications and Digital Committee, Free for All? Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age (First Report, Session 2021–22, HL Paper 54); Oral evidence taken before the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 9 October 2020, (Session 2020–21): https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/1387/html/

11 Throughout this report, we use “Facebook” to refer to both the social media platform and the broader company which renamed itself during our inquiry to “Meta”, as most of our evidence was heard before the renaming.

12 US Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower (October 5 2021): https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2021/10/protecting%20kids%20online:%20testimony%20from%20a%20facebook%20whistleblower [accessed 15 November 2021]; US Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, Protecting Kids Online: Snapchat, Tick Tock and YouTube (October 26 2021): https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2021/10/protecting-kids-online-snapchat-tiktok-and-YouTube [accessed 15 November 2021]

13 European Commission, ‘The Digital Services Act Package’: https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/digital-services-act-package [accessed 15 November 2021]

14 The Nobel Prize, ‘The Nobel Peace Prize 2021’, 8 October 2021: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2021/press-release/ [accessed 15 November 2021]

15 Written evidence from Minderoo, Centre for Technology & Democracy—Safety by Design Roundtable (OSB0237); LSE Department of Media and Communications—Anonymity & Age Verification Roundtable (OSB0236); LSE, Department of Media & Communications—Freedom of Expression Roundtable (OSB0247)

© Parliamentary copyright 2021