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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