Online Safety Bill - first few weeks of Committee Stage
The Commons Committee Stage of the legislative process for the Online Safety Bill has been underway for the past few weeks. This stage of the process is usually important for two reasons. It’s the first stage in the process where the Bill can be amended, either by a majority vote of the committee, or by the government accepting an amendment. It’s also an important point for detailed discussion of the wording, where major issues - and the government’s position on them - can be explored in more detail. Even where amendments aren't passed, Bill Committee discussions can thus set the stage for further debates and votes on amendments later in the legislative process.
We were delighted that the Committee invited Clean Up The Internet’s founder, Stephen Kinsellla, to take part in one of their initial oral evidence sessions immediately prior to the commencement of line-by-line scrutiny. Stephen explained to the Committee why we support the inclusion in sections 14, 57 and 58 of measures to reduce the misuse of anonymous accounts, and why we support an approach focused on giving users more choice and control, including a choice to verify, and choice to filter out interaction with unverified accounts.
Stephen also explained to the Committee that whilst we strongly support the government's approach, we do think that the current wording would benefit from some tightening up, to ensure the legislation delivers the intended benefits for users. A recording of his evidence session is available here. We have also shared with the Committee, via a written submission, some suggestions for what amendments to tighten up the wording could look like.
We have been encouraged so far by the responses to our suggestions in Committee, including thoughtful responses from the government minister, Chris Philp. Amendments along the lines which we suggested have been put forward both by long-time Clean Up The Internet supporter Siobhan Baillie MP, who has been championing the need to tackle the misuse of anonymous accounts and previously tabled the Social Media Platforms (Identity Verification) Ten Minute Rule Bill, and by the Labour shadow DCMS minister Alex Davies-Jones. All these amendments are listed here - Alex Davies Jones’ as amendment NC8, and Siobhan Baillie’s as 108 and 109). Whilst none of the amendments have so far been accepted, we have been encouraged by the cross party expressions of support for the thinking behind them, and the receptive tone of Minister Chris Philp’s responses.
The most significant amendment to the Bill so far in Committee has been for it to accept that duties relating to fraudulent advertising should apply to search engines as well as platforms - a welcome development which many civil society organisations have been calling for.
It has been notable that where proposed changes have not been accepted, a common response from the government has been that the current wording already permits Ofcom to do whatever it is that an amendment is seeking to mandate it to do. For example the minister used this line of argument to push back on a proposal, supported by Clean Up The Internet, to require Ofcom to produce a Code of Practice on how platforms should tackle violence against women and girls, arguing in relation to the Bill as presently worded that “I certainly see no prohibition in these words in the clause that would prevent Ofcom from writing a particular code of practice”. Similarly, responding to our suggestion that Ofcom be required to set minimum standards for verification within its guidance, Chris Philp argued, “We already have provisions on that in clause 58[…]Clause 58 allows Ofcom to include in its regulatory guidance the principles and standards referenced in the new clause.” Referring to the desirability of users having a range of choices for verification including with third party providers, the minister stated “there is every possibility that will happen” with the current wording.
It’s welcome that the government is not resisting such proposals because it holds an in principle objection to Ofcom producing a code of practice on violence against women, or to Ofcom setting minimum standards for how platforms implement the User Verification Duty. However, if the government supports such measures, it would surely make most sense for them to be included on the face of the Bill, to ensure that they happen as a matter of priority rather than just creating a “possibility” they happen at some point? We’d anticipate these questions of what should be left to Ofcom’s discretion - and what they should be clearly mandated to do on the face of the Bill - will be returned to in Report Stage, and in the Lords.
We will continue to engage closely with the Bill Committee, with the government, and with DCMS officials, as the legislative process continues.