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June 7, 2021
The Chair of the Committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, has written to Oliver Dowden, DCMS Secretary of State, requesting further information on four specific points in the draft Online Safety Bill.
- protection of children: the Committee is concerned that pornographic websites that do not offer user-to-user services are not in scope of the draft Bill; currently, the draft Bill offers a lower standard of protection for children than the unimplemented provisions in the Digital Economy Act 2017 which it repeals;
- definition of harm: clause 46 of the draft Bill states that its provisions on “legal but harmful” content on category 1 platforms apply where “the provider of the service has reasonable grounds to believe that the nature of the content is such that there is a material risk of the content having, or indirectly having, a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities”; however, it is unclear what is meant by “ordinary sensibilities”, especially when read in conjunction with subsection (4), which specifies that “in the case of content which may reasonably be assumed to particularly affect people with a certain characteristic (or combination of characteristics), or to particularly affect a certain group of people, the provider is to assume that [the adult] possesses that characteristic (or combination of characteristics), or is a member of that group (as the case may be)”; the Committee also asks for clarity on the definition of “psychological impact” and “indirect” impact;
- content of democratic importance: clause 13 of the draft Bill introduces protections for “content of democratic importance”, designed to prevent social media companies from suppressing opinions they disagree with; the category is defined as content that “is or appears to be specifically intended to contribute to democratic political debate in the United Kingdom or a part or area of the United Kingdom” and the explanatory notes state that: “Examples of such content would be content promoting or opposing government policy and content promoting or opposing a political party”; the Committee is concerned that focus on “democratic political debate” is too narrow and that the reference to government policies and political parties privileges debates by elected representatives and political parties over those initiated by members of the public; further, the draft Bill does not appear to prevent platforms from having terms and conditions which prohibit particular views providing they then apply those terms and conditions consistently, meaning that social media companies could write terms and conditions that ban viewpoints they dislike on controversial issues; and
- journalistic content: the Committee is unconvinced that the draft Bill would not lead to access to protected journalistic content (clause 14) being restricted; further, it is not convinced that proposals to apply such protections to “citizen journalism” are workable in their current form.
The Committee is currently preparing a report on its inquiry into freedom of expression online, in which it says that it will set out in detail how it believes the Government can protect freedom of expression while also protecting users from harm. To read the Committee’s letter in full, click here.