The draft Online Safety Bill: the view of the Joint Committee

The government’s draft Online Safety Bill has been subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of MPs and peers: an unusual procedural step. Following on from publication of its report, committee chair Damian Collins outlines its key findings and recommendations.

On 14 December the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, which I chair, published our final report on the government’s plans to ‘make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.’

Keen followers of Westminster will know that a pre-legislative, joint committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons is a rare creature, brought into existence little more than once in the duration of a four-year parliament. When there are high levels of interest in a draft bill across all parties and both chambers, such a committee can prove a useful tool to stress test its most critical clauses. Given that the Communications Act 2003, which established Ofcom, was subject to such scrutiny under the chairmanship of Lord (David) Puttnam, it is fitting that the next major reform in media regulation should have followed the same path.

For me this started in 2018, when I chaired a House of Commons inquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, followed by another in 2019 into Immersive and Addictive Technologies. These were conducted by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and called out big tech companies for being ‘digital gangsters’ with users’ privacy and safety, and recommended that the UK set up an independent regulator to hold them to account for any harms they caused.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the government set out to do this, publishing a draft Online Safety Bill in the spring, and setting up a Joint Committee in the summer to scrutinise the proposed legislation. Composed of some of the most longstanding experts in parliament on tech policy, media regulation, civil liberties and business governance, we set straight to work. Over the last five months we have held 30 hours of public evidence sessions and read more than 200 pieces of written evidence. We have spoken with over 50 witnesses: ministers, academics, civil society campaigners, industry executives, whistleblowers, and many other parliamentarians, from the UK and abroad. After many hours of closed deliberations, we unanimously agreed on 127 recommendations.

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The draft Online Safety Bill: abandoning democracy to disinformation

The draft Online Safety Bill published in May is the first significant attempt to safeguard the public from online harms through legislation. However, as Alex Walker explains, the government’s current proposals are a missed opportunity to address online harms to democracy and could even make tackling disinformation more difficult.

In May, the government published its draft Online Safety Bill, which is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of both Houses. It is also the subject of an inquiry by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation. Published two years after the Online Harms white paper, the draft bill represents the first major attempt in this country to regulate the online environment and the major companies that dominate it. Given the significance of the bill, the parliamentary attention it is currently receiving is welcome. Nevertheless, as much of the evidence given to parliament points out, the draft bill has significant weaknesses. In September, Constitution Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick and I submitted evidence to the DCMS Sub-committee inquiry. We highlighted the draft bill’s failure to address online harms to democracy. There is a danger that in its present form the bill will make it more difficult to tackle disinformation that damages and undermines democracy.

Abandoning the field: from the Online Harms white paper to the draft Online Safety Bill

As previously documented, in the course of the development of the online safety regime measures to strengthen democracy in the face of new challenges posed by digital technology have been dropped from the proposals. The Online Harms white paper, published in April 2019, was explicit that various types of online activity could harm democracy. It referenced concerted disinformation campaigns, deepfakes, and micro-targeting. The white paper set out a number of actions that it was expected would be in the regulator’s Code of Practice. They included: using fact-checking services, especially during election campaigns; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who mispresent their identity to spread disinformation.

In many areas, the white paper’s position chimed with the findings of a major inquiry into disinformation conducted by the DCMS select committee over the previous eighteen months.

But the publication of the draft Online Safety Bill in May confirmed that the government has opted for a much more limited approach. Only disinformation that could have a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an individual is now in scope. In choosing this approach, the government ignored the recommendations of the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, which proposed that certain service providers should have a duty of care towards democracy.

The emphasis has shifted decisively away from acknowledging that online platforms have a responsibility for the impact their technology has on democracy, towards a completely unregulated approach to political content, regardless of the broader democratic consequences.

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Reforming elections: assessing the government’s proposals

In September, the Constitution Unit hosted a distinguished panel of experts to discuss the government’s plans for reforming election law, as set out in the Elections Bill and draft Online Safety Bill. Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

The Elections Bill, and the draft Online Safety Bill are two important parts of the government’s reform agenda which, in their current form, stand to significantly alter the UK’s constitutional landscape.

With the Elections Bill making its way through parliament, and the draft Online Safety Bill undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar on 23 September entitled Reforming elections: assessing the government’s proposals. The event was chaired by the Unit’s Deputy Director, Professor Alan Renwick, and heard from four expert speakers: Louise Edwards, Deputy Director of Regulation at the Electoral Commission; Laura Lock, Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators; Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Policy Unit at Brunel University; and, Baroness (Nicky) Morgan of Cotes, former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (2019–20) – now a Conservative peer and Vice Chair of the APPG on Digital Regulation and Responsibility.

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The full event, including the Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

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The Elections Bill: some good ideas, but more thought needed

The Elections Bill has been subject to both criticism and praise, as discussed by our Deputy Director Alan Renwick on this blog, and numerous contributors to a parliamentary inquiry. Justin Fisher, a panellist at the Unit’s recent seminar on the bill, argues that it has several good proposals, but that more thought about certain aspects is required.

Of all the provisions in the Elections Bill, most attention has been paid to plans to introduce voter identification and greater political control of the Electoral Commission. Those provisions are obviously important, but the bill also includes significant proposals relating to notional expenditure and ‘third parties’ – organisations that campaign in elections but do not themselves field candidates. Some of these proposals, while ostensibly positive and well intentioned, have the potential to significantly affect the conduct of elections if they emerge from the scrutiny process unchanged. Others represent a disproportionate response, which are likely to lead to difficulties.

Notional Expenditure

Notional expenditure refers to campaign spending in and around constituencies which does not promote any particular candidate. Such spending is typically ascribed to the party at national level rather than the candidate at constituency-level. It is a by-product of the fact that there are different expenditure limits for candidates and for parties, and that under our electoral system, all parties target their campaign activity as far as possible on seats that they are seeking to gain or hold. Critics argue that candidate spending limits are rendered meaningless by parties’ targeting efforts, and matters came to a head at the 2015 election when in one seat, the candidate, his agent and a Conservative Party official were charged following allegations that campaign spending had not been properly declared. The candidate and agent were acquitted, but the party official was found guilty. The bill adopts a conservative approach to the issue but a sensible and most importantly, a workable one.

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