Full Fact welcomes Joint Committee's Online Safety Bill report—but questions on freedom of expression unanswered

14 December 2021 | Team Full Fact

Today the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill published their report on the government’s proposed legislation, due next year. 

We thank the MPs, Peers, and staff who produced this important and thoughtful report in such a short time. The Committee has done an important job trying to make the draft Online Safety Bill proportionate and targeted on specific harms. 

Nevertheless real questions remain about the Bill’s effect on freedom of expression that need to be addressed by the government as it updates the draft legislation in response to the Joint Committee’s report.

What the Joint Committee said

At Full Fact, we are pleased to see the recognition given by the Joint Committee to the damage done by health and election misinformation and also of the unreality of internet companies’ claims that AI will fix it effectively. 

Full Fact welcomes many of the recommendations and proposals in the report, including: 

  • The effort to put clearly defined specific harms on the face of the Bill and make sure that they are subject to open transparent democratic debate.
  • The important shift of focus from regulating content to regulating activity. We believe that it's appropriate for parliament to regulate behaviour and not what individuals can see or share.
  • The proposal to clearly set out the objectives of this regulation and be more targeted in what internet services are covered and how.
  • Proposals to recognise the harms from disinformation on public health and election administration in the Bill.
  • The emphasis on high quality media literacy.
  • Independent scrutiny of the algorithms which restrict what people see and share online and greater powers of audit for the regulator. 

Full Fact also welcomes the Committee's endorsement of fact checking as one of a suite of measures for tackling harmful false content, and the need for appropriately skilled human moderators.

Full Fact raises concerns about three unanswered questions on freedom of expression:

  • There is a loophole in the Bill allowing the government to privately pressure internet companies into taking down specific content. This censorship by proxy is not a theoretical worry: it has been part of pandemic response.
  • The committee says that news publishers should not be affected by the Bill unless they publish something criminal. As news publishers ourselves, we believe that if the draft Bill requires special protections for news publishers, then its restrictions on ordinary internet users go too far.
  • The committee endorses the Law Commission’s proposed new anti-harassment offence of sending knowingly false communications which intentionally cause non-trivial emotional, psychological, or physical harm. The false communications offence may work in specific cases of harassment but we cannot see how this vague definition can work at internet scale. We are concerned that it will encourage inappropriate takedowns of content.

What should happen next?

The government is required to issue a response to the Joint Committee report within two months and will update the Bill before it is introduced to Parliament. The Joint Committee has set out a comprehensive set of recommendations and proposals for the Government to take up to improve the Bill.  

In addition, we are calling for a new safeguard in the Bill to require transparency on government attempts to influence internet companies’ content moderation decisions.

Full Fact also calls for missing needed measures to reduce harms from bad information to be addressed by the Government and parliament in the Bill

Ultimately, a well informed public is the best protection against misinformation, whether it’s life threatening anti-vaccination claims or election disinformation that aims to hurt our democracy. 

Good information is the best solution to bad information. The Bill could do more to protect the public by including measures that:

  • ensure that information vacuums that allow harmful misinformation and disinformation to flourish are actively filled—like the lack of health information around 5G that allowed conspiracy theories to spread ultimately leading to harassment of telecoms workers
  • give users access to good information and that this is prioritised over restrictions to content
  • make high quality news available to users of internet platforms in a similar way to how Parliament has decided broadcast audiences should have access

Full Fact will set out more detail on these and other actions required on the Bill by Government, parliament and others early in the new year and then at each stage of the Bill’s passage through both Houses of parliament.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.