After the stop-start nature of the Online Safety Bill’s legislative process over the past few years, it is welcome - if unfamiliar - for it now to be making steady progress through its various stages in the House of Lords, with Report Stage reaching its conclusion last week.
It has also been welcome to see the government making improvements, to address concerns which have long been being raised by parliamentarians and civil society. We were particularly pleased to see the introduction of a requirement for Ofcom to produce guidance on protections for women and girls, and a tightening up of provisions relating to age assurance and age verification. These have both been long standing civil society campaigns, led respectively by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and the 5Rights Foundation, to which we had been proud to offer our support. Several parliamentarians also deserve huge credit for persuading the government to improve the Bill in these areas, including Alex Davies-Jones MP, Baroness Morgan, Baroness Kidron, Lord Stevenson, Lord Clement-Jones, and Lord Bethell.
We are still hoping to see a similar degree of flexibility from the government regarding the improvements needed to ensure that the User Verification Duty fulfils its potential. At present our concern remains that without provisions to ensure that users are able to see which other users are, and aren’t, verified, the benefits of verification will be significantly diminished. As Siobhan Baillie MP, who played such an important role in getting the User Verification Duty included in the Bill, argued in ConservativeHome, there’s a risk that without visibility the user verification provisions will “fall short at the final hurdle.”
During the Third Reading debate on 7 July, a cross-party group of peers proposed a fresh approach to amending the Bill to ensure visibility of verification status. Whereas a committee stage amendment had proposed to add to the User Empowerment Duty in Clause 12, to require that platforms enabled users to see another users’ verification status, for Report Stage an amendment was proposed instead to Clause 57. The new amendment, co-sponsored by Baroness Morgan (Conservative), Lord Stevenson (Labour) and Lord Clement-Jones (Lib Dem), would add to the User Verification Duty, to require platforms not only offer all users an option to verify themselves, but also offer those users that choose to verify an option to make that verification visible to other users.
In the debate, Lord Clement-Jones highlighted that taking this approach to making verification status visible would deliver “even more on empowering users by giving them choice”. He argued that it was consistent with the focus on user empowerment and choice at the heart of the government’s chosen approach to adult safety: “Just as the Bill would not force any UK users to verify, so this amendment would not force any UK users to make their choice to verify visible. All it would do is require that platforms offer them an option"
Lord Clement-Jones also cited our recently published opinion polling, pointing out to the minister that “most UK users would choose to verify and to make that visible” and our finding that 78% of UK social media users say that it would be helpful to be able to see which social media accounts have been verified to help them avoid scams.
Baroness Morgan spoke from her experience not only as a former Secretary of State responsible for online safety, but also “having led the House’s inquiry into fraud and digital fraud last year”. She pointed out that the Bill’s welcome measures against fraudulent advertising were likely to mean scammers relied even more heavily on fake accounts for “organic reach”, and argued that “as an anti-fraud measure, being able to see whether an account has been verified would be extremely useful”.
Lord Stevenson emphasised the wide range of harms which an effective user verification duty, with visibility provisions included, could help tackle: “To reduce scams, to be more aware of trolls and to be aware of misinformation and disinformation, you need some sense of who you are talking to, or who is talking to you”. He expressed the view that the government’s reluctance to introduce improvements at this stage meant that “user ID is another issue that will come back”.
The minister, Lord Parkinson, offered very little detail on the government’s position on the amendment. In his opening remarks to the debate, before having heard any of the arguments in favour, he stated that the government “do not believe that this amendment would provide additional protections” - but did not offer any evidence to back up this belief. In his closing remarks, where he set out his response to arguments which had been made in favour of the other amendments which had been debated in the same group, he did not engage with amendment 182. When Lord Clement-Jones invited him to do so, he said only that “I am being encouraged to be brief, so if I may, I will write to the noble Lord on that point.”
Whilst the debate was indeed running out of time, there were plenty of other amendments which the minister could have chosen to avoid talking about in the name of brevity. So we take some encouragement from him choosing to avoid offering any rebuttal of the arguments made in favour of amendment 182. We hope that this leaves room for a more thorough consideration, and potentially a change of position, in due course. We understand that the final Lords stage, Third Reading, is now scheduled after Summer Recess, on 6 September. We hope that the government makes good use of the break in the legislative calendar to introduce some further improvements.