Carnegie UK Trust initial response to draft Online Safety Bill

May 12, 2021

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The Government has today published its draft Online Safety Bill in advance of pre-legislative scrutiny (read Will Perrin’s thoughts on what form that might take here.) The official press release, framing the Bill as a “milestone” and particularly prioritising the measures it would introduce to protect democratic debate and free speech, along with journalistic freedoms, can be read here.

The publication of the Bill is a significant step in a long process to get legislation on the statute book, nearly three years to the day since Matt Hancock (then DCMS Secretary of State) signalled the Government’s intention to legislate in May 2018. The draft Bill runs to 145 pages, supported by 123 pages of explanatory notes and a hefty 127-page impact assessment. As such, it deserves calm, sober analysis, not least as it is landing in contested terrain where proponents and opponents of legislation are already fairly entrenched. We pay tribute to the commitment and perseverance of the DCMS Online Harms policy team and their Home Office colleagues in getting this far.

It is important to set this legislation in a global context – the European Union is entering a process of detailed scrutiny of its own proposals which seem to be inspired by UK work. The declaration from the UK-chaired G7 technology ministers signalled the USA, Canada and Japan acknowledging that online harms are serious and need to be tackled. The USA only last week signed the Christchurch Call. Large, ‘polluting’ technology multinationals are at last being held to account across leading democracies for the consequences of their services. The UK has led this process and should take great confidence from the fact that it is not alone.

As the originators of the “duty of care” approach for regulating online harms (our body of work is here), we want the Government to get this right. We strongly believe that a systemic duty of care, focused on systems and processes and backed by continuous risk assessment, is the most effective, proportionate, and future-proofed approach to regulating social media platforms.

The draft Bill – at a first glance – looks like a good start: a comprehensive risk-managed process that focuses on the functionality and design of platforms, enshrined in codes of practice that are drawn up and enforced by the regulator, to balance sensibly the need for protections from harm for users of online services with the rights we all have to freedom of speech. We can already see some obvious flaws and omissions – for example, measures to address harmful misinformation and disinformation are absent – as well as much that can be commended. We will now put our heads down and analyse the Bill fully before publishing a more thorough response. In the meantime, we look forward to hearing the initial views of Parliamentarians in the Queen’s Speech debates allocated to DCMS issues next Monday and Tuesday, and to the rapid election of a Joint Scrutiny Committee. We will continue to work with politicians of all parties, NGOs, civil servants and our colleagues in the policy and regulatory fields in the months – but hopefully not years – ahead.