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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The Elections Bill: examining the evidence

The Elections Bill is currently being scrutinised by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has received a large amount of evidence from a wide range of academics and organisations. Ahead of the Unit’s September webinar on the bill, Emilia Cieslak offered a summary of the key themes, including the parts of the bill that are welcomed, and the sections that have caused concern.

The Elections Bill currently before parliament aims to tackle a wide range of issues, including fighting electoral fraud, increasing parliamentary supervision of the Electoral Commission, and extending the franchise to more overseas electors and EU citizens. The bill recently received its second reading in the Commons. It is currently going through committee stage and is also being reviewed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). While some provisions have proved popular, many have attracted criticism.

This post reviews the written evidence submissions to PACAC’s inquiry, focusing largely on the most controversial provisions: the introduction of photographic voter ID, changes to parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission, and reform of campaign spending rules. Before addressing those controversial aspects, however, I highlight sections of the bill that are generally welcomed.

Popular provisions

The bill proposes to abolish the current 15-year limit after which overseas electors become ineligible to vote. This has so far met very little opposition, and has strong support from groups representing British citizens living abroad. Several submissions (for example, from the Electoral Commission and Association of Electoral Administrators) do, however, draw attention to practical difficulties. And one submission, from Professor Justin Fisher, argues that the principled case for the change is not straightforward.

Meanwhile, no submissions oppose extending voting and candidacy rights to EU citizens through bilateral arrangements with individual member states. Most welcome changes to provision for voters with disabilities, though some identify what they see as flaws in certain elements of those measures.

The introduction of digital imprints is hailed as an overdue, necessary step to tackling the problem of misleading campaign material online. Most respondents writing on the topic argue that the provision is a good start, but that more is needed. Dr Sam Power comments that the provision should be accompanied by a renewed focus on citizen engagement and digital literacy campaigns. The Electoral Reform Society argues for a requirement that campaigners provide invoices on their digital spending, an open database for all political advertisements, and a code of practice on use of sensitive data. Multiple respondents warned about the rapid development of technology which means the legislation will require post-legislative scrutiny and frequent updates to avoid new loopholes developing.

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Updating campaign regulation for the digital era

John Pullinger, chair of the Electoral Commission, argues digital campaign regulations need  an ‘overhaul’ to make the electoral process more transparent and accessible to voters, thereby increasing confidence in the system in a manner that doesn’t discourage parties, candidates and campaigners to take in part in elections. He also calls on the UK’s parliaments to show that they do not tolerate the use of online activities that undermine democracy.

Digital channels are transforming our democracy. Action now can harness that transformation to make political campaigns better. Without the right action, our democracy may not be resilient in the face of the challenges posed by the digital era. But there is nothing unique to elections in this. It applies in the same way to how technological change is affecting so many aspects of our lives. And we can respond in the same way.

Voters can already be sceptical about what they see on social media and practise the art of asking. Who is telling me this? Can I be sure it is really from them? Why are they telling me this? Can I believe what they are saying? How can I check it out? Parties, candidates and campaigners can already use digital tools like imprints to show where information is coming from.

Other voices can already accentuate the positive and shame the bad. Social media platforms, news organisations, influencers and fact checkers increasingly see this as central to their own reputation. A platform is not neutral. It has values and shows its true colours by how it acts. By standing on the sidelines, they are getting the message that they will be seen to be complicit in undermining democracy. By standing tall they can see that they can provide a vital public service that will enhance their brand.

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