September 7, 2021

UK Parliament returns – and the debate on preventing harms through regulation of social media goes up a notch

By Maeve Walsh, Carnegie Associate

The UK Parliament returns this week to pick up where it left off after a busy end to the summer term in July. To recap, in the last week of the session:

  • The membership of the Joint Committee for the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Draft Online Safety Bill was announced, with Damian Collins MP appointed as Chair. The Committee comprises a strong mix of expert MPs and Peers, each with a track record of engagement on different aspects of the Online Harms agenda, which bodes well for robust and thorough scrutiny of the Bill. Its call for evidence closes on 16th September, hearings start this Thursday, and it’s been given a deadline of 10th December to produce its report.
  • The DCMS Select Committee launched its own inquiry into the Online Safety Bill – in particular, focusing on its development and its omissions – and the deadline for submissions to that has already passed. One such omission from the Bill – online fraud and paid-for-advertising – was the subject of a pre-recess joint letter to the PM from Stephen Timms MP and Mel Stride MP, respectively the Chairs of the Work and Pensions and Treasury Committees.
  • In the Lords, the Communications and Digital Committee published its report on online freedom of expression calling for the government to scrap the proposed “legal but harmful” duty on companies and instead move to criminalise content deemed to be harmful. We’ll be publishing a blog on this topic shortly.

Meanwhile, DCMS published its long-delayed Online Media Literacy Strategy, intended to fill in some of the gaps left by the exclusion of much of the harm caused by online mis/disinformation from the Bill; and the Law Commission published its recommendations on the reform of the Communications Offences, to which the UK Government needs to provide its interim response by January.

So, what happens next? Much depends on how responsive the Government intends to be once the scrutiny process is underway: in formal terms, DCMS has until next March to respond to the PLS Committee’s deliberations and recommendations on the draft Bill, after which the final Bill should be introduced. But – as we have argued in our recent analysis of the draft Bill – scrutiny would be greatly helped by the Government “filling in” some of the blanks before then, to allow OFCOM to start to prepare to receive its powers and to expedite Parliamentary debate on the Government’s intentions, for instance, the Government’s strategic priorities for OFCOM and the Secretary of State’s view on “priority harms”.

The debate on the Bill will be particularly intense in relation to freedom of speech, the powers of the Secretary of State (both of which we will cover in upcoming blogs) and proposals on age-verification, particularly in relation to children’s access to pornography, where the UK Government’s decision to revoke Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act still reverberates. (It’s worth noting that the Government has, however, launched a consultation on extending regulation of video-on-demand platforms which would, in principle, cover “professional porn” sites that contain audio-visual material). You can expect the Government’s response to many civil society campaigns about the scope of the Bill to make reference to other upcoming policy and legislative proposals, including the Elections Bill, the Digital Markets Consultation, the responses to the consultations on Online Advertising and Legislation to Counter State Threats and the Home Office’s Fraud Action Plan. And, of course, the UK’s deliberations are not happening in isolation: the EU’s Digital Services Act is on course for implementation; the US Federal Trade Commission is in a much more bullish mood in calling the major platforms to account; Canada and Australia will debate their respective governments’ proposals; and the work of UN Special Rapporteurs in framing broader international norms is likely to be increasingly influential.

For all those who argue that regulation is either unnecessary or inappropriate for social media companies, or that tech exceptionalism means that any such accountability is impossible or inadvisable, the Children’s Code – which came into force this month  – suggests otherwise. Without it, the raft of recent announcements by the major platforms relating to changes to their service design, their terms and conditions and their user tools to better protect children online are very unlikely to have taken place. Regulation works. For the Online Safety Bill, the next few months will be crucial in getting it right.

We will be publishing blog posts in the coming weeks that set out some of our proposals for amendments and improvements to the Online Safety Bill. Sign up to our fortnightly Online Harms newsletter to keep in touch with all the UK and international developments in this agenda.