Clean Up The Internet has been working on the Online Safety Bill process for over three years now. So we’re no stranger to delays or uncertainty, including changes of prime minister or of the DCMS ministerial team, or to changes of terminology and scope such as the replacement of “Harms” by “Safety”.
Thus far, progress has continued despite political turbulence and changes of leadership, largely because there is such a groundswell of support for improved regulation of social media platforms, amongst both the general public and parliamentarians of all parties. We were therefore able to view the pausing of the legislative process in July, following the resignation of Boris Johnson and mid-way through Commons third reading, with relative equanimity.
We were sorry to see the departure of Chris Philp MP. We had enjoyed positive meetings with him and he had accepted our case for reducing harms from anonymous accounts by giving users new options to verify their identity and to filter out interaction from unverified accounts. It was under his stewardship that a “user empowerment duty” and “user verification duty” were introduced into the Bill as clauses 14, 57, and 58.
However, we were encouraged by the appointment of Damian Collins MP as his replacement. Damian Collins has an unrivalled track record of engagement with these issues and a deep understanding of the online ecosystem. He has in the past expressed strong support for our proposals, as did the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, which he chaired. It’s hard to imagine Damian Collins being willing to preside over a significant watering down, let alone a scrapping, of the Online Safety Bill.
It was also reassuring to hear confirmation from the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, at her very first PMQs, that her government would continue with the OSB. In response to a question from Jeremy Wright MP, the Prime Minister stated:
“I can assure my right hon. and learned Friend that we will be proceeding with the Online Safety Bill. There are some issues that we need to deal with. What I want to make sure is that we protect the under-18s from harm and that we also make sure free speech is allowed, so there may be some tweaks required, but certainly he is right that we need to protect people’s safety online.”
We will be looking very closely at any such “tweaks”, but we are confident in the case for the retaining of clauses 14, 57, and 58. We would of course expect a new Prime Minister to want to put her own stamp on such a flagship piece of legislation. We share her belief in the importance of safeguarding Freedom of Speech, although we consider some of the concerns raised in this area to be based on a misunderstanding of both the status quo and the wording of the Bill. We believe our proposals are an example of how regulation at the level of systems and design can reduce harm whilst also reducing reliance on content moderation with its trickier trade-offs for free speech. We are therefore optimistic that there should be no need to seriously move away from the user empowerment duty or user verification duty.
There are some “tweaks” that we’d very much welcome. In particular, we have already offered suggestions to refine the wording of the user verification duty, to set a framework of minimum standards for how platforms implement it and ensure it delivers real benefits for users. Setting a clearer framework for how user verification should work, on the face of the Bill, would have the added advantage of giving a clearer signal to platforms of the direction of travel, and therefore speeding up the pace of change. This would be particularly welcome given the Bill has now encountered further delays. For a government expected to call a general election in 2024, this may have the further attraction of making it more likely that users would by then have experienced tangible improvements.
We also share concerns, raised by a number of other organisations including our friends at Carnegie UK, that at present the Bill would give future Secretary of States too many powers to intervene in the regulatory process, and so would welcome measures to correct this. And more broadly, any “tweaks” to focus the Bill more on the regulation of design, systems, and processes - as it already does in the case of anonymous accounts and user verification - should both improve its effectiveness and assuage the concerns of those worried about over-reliance on content moderation.
We will look forward to engaging with the new ministerial team, and to making the case for an Online Safety Bill which includes strong measures to empower users and reduce the misuse of anonymity, when ordinary government business resumes next week after the Funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.