The Government must start listening to concerns on Online Safety Bill
Vital but flawed legislation has completed its Committee stage almost unchanged, despite efforts by MPs.
After 9 days of oral evidence and debate on the legislation, the Online Safety Bill completed its passage through Committee stage in the House of Commons. Despite the best efforts of some MPs, and numerous stakeholders, the Bill emerged largely unchanged.
This legislation will ultimately affect every one of us. So it was disappointing to see the Government so determined to avoid almost any change proposed by MPs in an attempt to improve the Bill.
Instead we saw day after day of Digital Minister Chris Philp MP repeatedly agreeing with the principle of an amendment only to then refuse to accept it.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries had previously told the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill during pre-legislative scrutiny that:
“This is teamwork. We are doing this together. Please do not hesitate in making any recommendations that you think will improve this Bill because you are doing the work with us—anything you can think of to improve it…”
The Government needs to start listening again if it is to improve this legislation. There is still time, but without significant changes this Bill will, amongst many other flaws, fail to tackle harmful misinformation and disinformation online, while putting freedom of expression at risk.
Full Fact had an interest in a number of the amendments that were proposed during Committee stage.
Harmful health misinformation
On the last day of Committee stage Digital Minister Chris Philp MP did finally state that the Government is "committed to designating some forms of harmful health mis and disinformation as priority harmful content in secondary legislation”.
This is welcome. Bad information ruins lives. It would mean that online platforms will have to set out how they will address harmful health misinformation.
But as the Online Safety Bill heads to the floor of the House of Commons, we still don’t know what specific types of content the Government considers to be harmful, and therefore what will be included in the scope of the Bill.
This makes proper scrutiny of the legislation impossible and threatens freedom of expression.
MPs must demand that the government clarifies its intentions now. We need legislation that will prioritise the promotion of good information over content takedowns.
Good media literacy is our first line of defence against bad information. It can make the difference when people are looking for accurate, reliable information to inform decisions, for example about their own or their loved ones’ health.
The Bill must strengthen media literacy through new requirements that leave everyone in the UK better protected. We worked with MPs on the Committee to put forward proposals to strengthen Ofcom’s media literacy role through a new duty focussed on specific objectives supported by a statutory strategy.
In response, Digital Minister Chris Philp MP said that while he recognised and supported the intention behind the new clause, it wasn’t necessary, and rejected it. In doing so he pointed to Ofcom’s existing media literacy duty and the fact that there other things already going on outside of the legislation. This is not good enough. It’s no longer sufficient to rely on outdated provisions and good intentions.
Ofcom’s existing media literacy duty dates back to 2003 and it needs updating for the digital age. This was something the Government itself had reflected in its draft legislation, only to then drop it when the Bill was introduced to Parliament.
The new regulatory regime must set clear expectations on both platforms and the regulator when it comes to protecting children and adults from harm, including helping them to protect themselves through better media literacy. Full Fact will continue to promote this issue at Report stage in the House of Common and then into the Lords.
Misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly during periods of uncertainty or crisis such as a pandemic or terror attack. We call these ‘information incidents’. Unfortunately these situations are not dealt with effectively enough in the Bill and the role of Ofcom, the new online safety regulator, is unclear. We have been calling for this to be addressed properly in the Bill.
This week the Committee debated an amendment that would have seen Ofcom given a much clearer, proactive role in identifying and responding to information incidents that can occur in a moment of crisis. This would have included Ofcom providing important public information or recommendations, and working with others to convene a response.
Once again the Minister dismissed these proposals on the basis that the Bill already addresses the problem. This is wrong. What the Bill contains is a clause (now Clause 147) that would be simultaneously ineffective at tackling information incidents while threatening Ofcom’s independence. It places an arbitrary set of powers into the hands of the Secretary of State while tying the hands of the regulator that will be tasked with overseeing online safety under the Bill—another direct threat to freedom of expression. This approach needs urgent reconsideration at Report stage.
The Online Safety Bill will now move to its Report Stage in the House of Commons on 12 July, where all MPs will get to vote on the legislation for the first time. After that it will enter the House of Lords where it will undergo further scrutiny, debate and amendment. We will continue to work with MPs and Peers on these and other issues to ensure that the Online Safety Bill protects us all from harmful misinformation and disinformation.
You can help make the case for an Online Safety Bill that tackles bad information and safeguards freedom of expression.
MP photos © Parliament (CC-BY 3.