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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A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life

Dame Laura Cox, author of a 2018 report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff, argues that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women MPs leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.

We are living currently in a very angry world. Our parliament, the central institution of our representative democracy, should be setting an example of tolerance and civility, but instead, civility and willingness to compromise seem to have faded. Political discourse generally has been impoverished by antagonism and extremism. Those more constructive qualities of reflection, cooperation, collaboration and consensus seem to have fallen by the wayside.

In addition to bitter, adversarial politics, there has been an upsurge in reports of abuse, intimidation and assault. In recent years, independent inquiries into events at Westminster – including my own report into the bullying and harassment of Commons staff – have recorded a disturbing number of acts of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment alleged by members of staff and MPs against other MPs, as well as among staff and members of the House of Lords.

The macho behaviour and posturing so frequently displayed in our political debates have disproportionately and adversely affected women in public life. The women affected are not only politicians. Women journalists, academics, campaigners and political activists have all reported instances of intimidation, abuse and even physical violence. In June 2016 a serving MP, Jo Cox, was brutally killed on the street in broad daylight.

Why has our politics become so misogynistic? There are, in my view, a number of contributing factors, including the still unacceptably low numbers of women politicians; the rules and customs of the parliament where they serve; and the resistance to change of parliament as an institution.

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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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Constitutional reformers need to tackle six key questions about the regulation of digital campaigning

Today marks the second day of the Unit’s conference on the Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda, for which free tickets remain available. One of today’s speakers, Kate Dommett, argues that the government’s proposals to tackle the challenges posed by digital campaigning are far from comprehensive, leaving many unanswered questions for future governments to address.

Five years on from the Brexit referendum and the Cambridge Analytica scandal that emerged in its wake, the government is poised to publish its Electoral Integrity Bill. Proposing ‘significant changes to the electoral and democratic system’, it could be presumed that Boris Johnson’s government is about to enact an ambitious programme of constitutional change that will update electoral systems to the digital age. Yet, from the details available so far – including a new announcement this week – it seems Johnson’s government is failing to address six critical questions about digital campaigning, leaving considerable room for further reform.

The rise of digital technology in campaigning

The rise of digital campaigning has been a slow and steady phenomenon in UK elections, but in recent years there has been significant attention paid to the need for electoral reform. The current regulation governing electoral campaigning can be found in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act (PPERA) that was passed in 2000. Since then the adoption of websites, social media profiles and, more recently, online advertising by electoral campaigners has raised questions about the suitability of existing legislation. Indeed, a range of parliamentary committees, civil society bodies, academics and even digital companies such as Facebook, have asserted a need for urgent digital campaigning regulation.

Publishing a report devoted to digital campaigning in 2018, the Electoral Commission has been at the forefront of these debates. Its analysis revealed the rapid rise of digital tools in elections, showing increasing amounts are being spent on digital advertising. Updating its statistics to include the last election, Figure 1 (below) shows that spending on digital advertising has increased to around £7.5 million, and now represents a significant proportion of election campaign spend.

Figure 1: Electoral Commission spending return declarations related to advertising and digital advertising 2014-2019
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