The publication of a draft Online Safety Bill has enabled two parliamentary committees to engage in detailed pre-legislative scrutiny. The conclusions of a special joint committee were discussed in earlier posts by its Chair, Damian Collins and Alex Walker. Here, Alex analyses the findings of the second report on the draft bill, authored by the DCMS Committee, and analyses the points of contention between the two reports.
Parliament has been giving close attention to the landmark Online Safety Bill since it was published in draft in May 2021. In December, the joint committee set up to consider the draft bill published its report. I considered its recommendations in the first part of this two-part series on the scrutiny of the draft bill. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee has since published its take on the draft legislation. As the DCMS committee commented, it is welcome that the bill was published in draft, and is receiving such comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny. Whilst the government is of course not required to accept the recommendations of the committees, failing to address gaps they have both identified would not be a constructive response to the pre-legislative process.
One such gap (highlighted previously on this blog) is that of online harms to democracy. Whilst they diverge on a number of points, the DCMS committee and the joint committee share the analysis that this is a serious issue which the bill should address. In this piece, I consider the DCMS committee’s proposals to address online threats to democracy and look at how they differ from those of the joint committee. Both approaches to improving this aspect of the bill are worthy of careful consideration and the government should not use the points of difference as a way to avoid taking action.
Content that undermines democracy should be in scope
Constitution Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick and I argued in written evidence to the DCMS committee that online harms to democracy should be addressed in the legislation. The committee agreed. The government’s own 2019 Online Harms white paper detailed the dangers that online activity such as the viral spread of disinformation could pose to democracy. But the measures the white paper set out to address this issue were later abandoned, leaving the draft bill with a considerable blind spot. Both the DCMS committee and the joint committee concluded that leaving this gap unfilled would be a mistake. However, the two committees recommended different changes to the legislation.Continue reading