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  • Stephen Kinsella

Joint Committee Report on the Draft Online Safety Bill - some first reflections

The Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, chaired by Damian Collins MP, issued its report this morning, with recommendations for how the draft Bill could be strengthened.

It’s a substantial piece of work, drawing on hundreds of written submissions and over 40 oral evidence sessions. It will take some time to fully digest its 193 pages. However, at first reading there is a great deal to welcome. We are of course delighted to see our own submission quoted, and our proposals featured in their recommendations.

The Joint Committee correctly identifies that the draft Bill’s focus on platforms’ design and systems could be strengthened, and that "tackling these design risks is more effective than just trying to take down individual pieces of content”. We welcome their recommendation that “the Bill includes a specific responsibility on service providers to have in place systems and processes to identify reasonably foreseeable risks of harm arising from the design of their platforms and take proportionate steps to mitigate those risks of harm.”

We also welcome their recognition that the ability for users to create anonymous or pseudonymous accounts is such a design feature, and that therefore “platforms that allow anonymous and pseudonymous accounts should be required to include the resulting risks as a specific category in the risk assessment on safety by design”. The committee recommends that Ofcom also be required to address anonymity, by setting out potential risk mitigations within the Code of Practice on Safety by Design. They suggest that one of the mitigations Ofcom could include should be to “offer the choice of verified or unverified status and user options on how they interact with accounts in either category”, as we have proposed.

The committee successfully moves beyond the sterile “ban anonymity” vs “keep everything as it is” debates which have plagued discussion of this topic for years. They recognise that anonymity can both be a source of protection for vulnerable individuals, and a significant enabler of harms. Their proposals for a proportionate, balanced, risk-based approach mark a huge step forward.

We do have a couple of quibbles with the committee’s recommendations on anonymity. The first is that their list of the problems with which anonymity/pseudonymity can be associated (“the risk of regulated activity taking place on their platform without law enforcement being able to tie it to a perpetrator, the risk of ‘disposable’ accounts being created for the purpose of undertaking illegal or harmful activity, and the risk of increased online abuse due to the disinhibition effect”) is incomplete. Most importantly, platforms should be explicitly required to mitigate the risk of anonymity or pseudonymity being misused to mislead or trick other users. The concealed, inauthentic use of pseudonyms is a common strategy both of disinformation campaigns and of scammers across many platforms.

Secondly, the committee’s recommendations appear to suggest that specific risk mitigations would mainly be left to Ofcom’s Codes of Practice, rather than be included on the face of the Bill. We are concerned that this could mean it takes an unnecessarily long time for users to see any substantial changes to their online experience. Ofcom stated to the committee, in its follow-up evidence, that “it will likely take at least 12 months to prepare the first codes of practice, including consultation, and our ambition would therefore be to submit our first codes of practice to the Secretary of State around 12 to 18 months after Royal Assent". We believe tangible improvements ,such as requiring all platforms to offer users a “right to verify”, could be made to happen more quickly if they were on the face of the Bill. Including a non-exhaustive list of risk mitigations in the primary legislation would offer clarity to platforms and the regulator from day one, and ensure users saw the new regulatory regime deliver tangible improvements in their online experience more quickly.

Notwithstanding these quibbles, we welcome the committee’s report, and congratulate all the committee members on producing such a thoughtful and thorough piece of work on such a tight timescale. We urge the government to act on its recommendations.

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