Clause 12 - Adults’ risk assessment duties

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Llafur, Wallasey

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Clause 13 stand part.

Government amendments 18, 23 to 25, 32, 33 and 39.

Clause 55 stand part.

Government amendments 42 to 45, 61 to 66, 68 to 70, 74, 80, 85, 92, 51 and 52, 54, 94 and 60.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I did not make a note of the specific word I was on when we adjourned, so I hope Hansard colleagues will forgive me if the flow between what I said previously and what I say now is somewhat stilted.

I will keep this brief, because I was—purposefully—testing the patience of the Minister with some of my contributions. However, I did so to hammer home the fact that the removal of clauses 12 and 13 from the Bill is a fatal error. If the recommittal of the Bill is not to fundamentally undermine what the Bill set out to do five years or so ago, their removal should urgently be reconsidered. We have spent five years debating the Bill to get it to this point.

As I said, there are forms of harm that are not illegal, but they are none the less harmful, and they should be legislated for. They should be in the Bill, as should specific protections for adults, not just children. I therefore urge the Minister to keep clauses 12 and 13 in the Bill so that we do not undermine what it set out to do and all the work that has been done up to this point. Inexplicably, the Government are trying to undo that work at this late stage before the Bill becomes law.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela—I wish it was a toastier room. Let me add to the points that the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, made so powerfully about vulnerable people. There is no cliff edge when such a person becomes 18. What thought have the Minister and the Department given to vulnerable young adults with learning disabilities or spectrum disorders? Frankly, the idea that, as soon as a person turns 18, they are magically no longer vulnerable is for the birds—particularly when it comes to eating disorders, suicide and self-harm.

Adults do not live in isolation, and they do not just live online. We have a duty of care to people. The perfect example is disinformation, particularly when it comes to its harmful impact on public health. We saw that with the pandemic and vaccine misinformation. We saw it with the harm done to children by the anti-vaccine movement’s myths about vaccines, children and babies. It causes greater harm than just having a conversation online.

People do not stay in one lane. Once people start being sucked into conspiracy myths, much as we discussed earlier around the algorithms that are used to keep people online, it has to keep ramping up. Social media and tech companies do that very well. They know how to do it. That is why I might start looking for something to do with ramen recipes and all of a sudden I am on to a cat that has decided to make noodles. It always ramps up. That is the fun end of it, but on the serious end somebody will start to have doubts about certain public health messages the Government are sending out. That then tips into other conspiracy theories that have really harmful, damaging consequences.

I saw that personally. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North eloquently put forward some really powerful examples of what she has been subjected to. With covid, some of the anti-vaccinators and anti-mask-wearers who targeted me quickly slipped into Sinophobia and racism. I was sent videos of people eating live animals, and being blamed for a global pandemic.

The people who have been targeted do not stay in one lane. The idea that adults are not vulnerable, and susceptible, to such targeting and do not need protection from it is frankly for the birds. We see that particularly with extremism, misogyny and the incel culture. I take the point from our earlier discussion about who determines what crosses the legal threshold, but why do we have to wait until somebody is physically hurt before the Government act?

That is really regrettable. So, too, is the fact that this is such a huge U-turn in policy, with 15% of the Bill coming back to Committee. As we have heard, that is unprecedented, and yet, on the most pivotal point, we were unable to hear expert advice, particularly from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and the Antisemitism Policy Trust. I was struggling to understand why we would not hear expert advice on such a drastic change to an important piece of legislation—until I heard the hon. Member for Don Valley talk about offence. This is not about offence; it is about harm.

The hon. Member’s comments highlighted perfectly the real reason we are all here in a freezing cold Bill Committee, rehashing work that has already been solved. The Bill was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was better than what we have today. The real reason we are here is the fight within the Conservative party.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Ceidwadwyr, Don Valley

No such fight has taken place. These are my personal views, and I genuinely believe that people have a right to say what they would like to say. That is free speech. There have been no fights whatever.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

In that case, I must have been mistaken in thinking that the hon. Member—who has probably said quite a lot of things, which is why his voice is as hoarse as it is—was criticising the former Minister for measures that were agreed in previous Committee sittings.

For me, the current proposals are a really disappointing, retrograde step. They will not protect the most vulnerable people in our communities, including offline—this harm is not just online, but stretches out across all our communities. What happens online does not take place, and stay, in an isolated space; people are influenced by it and take their cues from it. They do not just take their cues from what is said in Parliament; they see misogynists online and think that they can treat people like that. They see horrific abuses of power and extreme pornography and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, take their cues from that. What happens online does not stay online.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about what happens online and its influence on the outside world. We saw that most recently with Kanye West being reinstated to Twitter and allowed to spew his bile and abhorrent views about Jews. That antisemitism had a real-world impact in terms of the rise in antisemitism on the streets, particularly in the US. The direct impact of his being allowed to talk about that online was Jews being harmed in the real world. That is exactly what is happening.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the shadow Minister for that intervention. She is absolutely right. We have had a discussion about terms of reference and terms of service. Not only do most people not actually fully read them or understand them, but they are subject to change. The moment Elon Musk took over Twitter, everything changed. Not only have we got Donald Trump back, but Elon Musk also gave the keys to a mainstream social media platform to Kanye West. We have seen what happened then.

That is the situation the Government will now not shut the door on. That is regrettable. For all the reasons we have heard today, it is really damaging. It is really disappointing that we are not taking the opportunity to lead in this area.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela.

A lot of the discussion has replayed the debate from day two on Report about the removal of “legal but harmful” measures. Some of the discussion this morning and this afternoon has covered really important issues such as self-harm on which, as we said on the Floor of the House, we will introduce measures at a later stage. I will not talk about those measures now, but I would just say that we have already said that if we agree that the promotion of things such as self-harm is illegal, it should be illegal. Let us be very straight about how we deal with the promotion of self-harm.

The Bill will bring huge improvements for adult safety online. In addition to their duty to tackle illegal content, companies will have to provide adult users with tools to keep themselves safer. On some of the other clauses, we will talk about the triple shield that was mentioned earlier. If the content is illegal, it will still be illegal. If content does not adhere to the companies’ terms of service—that includes many of the issues that we have been debating for the last hour—it will have to be removed. We will come to user enforcement issues in further clauses.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North

The Minister mentions tools for adults to keep themselves safe. Does he not think that that puts the onus on the users—the victims—to keep themselves safe? The measures as they stand in the Bill put the onus on the companies to be more proactive about how they keep people safe.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The onus on adults is very much a safety net—very much a catch-all, after we have put the onus on the social media companies and the platforms to adhere to their own terms and conditions.

We have heard a lot about Twitter and the changes to Twitter. We can see the commercial imperative for mainstream platforms, certainly the category 1 platforms, to have a wide enough catch-all in their terms of service—anything that an advertiser, for example, would see as reasonably sensible—to be able to remain a viable platform in the first place. When Elon Musk first started making changes at Twitter, a comment did the rounds: “How do you build a multimillion-dollar company? You sell it to Elon Musk for £44 billion.” He made that change. He has seen the bottom falling out of his market and has lost a lot of the cash he put into Twitter. That is the commercial impetus that underpins a lot of the changes we are making.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Is the Minister really suggesting that it is reasonable for people to say, “Right, I am going to have to walk away from Facebook because I don’t agree with their terms of service,” to hold the platform to account? How does he expect people to keep in touch with each other if they have to walk away from social media platforms in order to try to hold them to account?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I do not think the hon. Lady is seriously suggesting that people can communicate only via Facebook—via one platform. The point is that there are a variety of methods of communication, of which has been a major one, although it is not one of the biggest now, with its share value having dropped 71% in the last year. That is, again, another commercial impetus in terms of changing its platform in other, usability-related ways.

People will have choice in terms of how they communicate, but we are saying that if something is illegal, it will need to be removed from the platform. The majority of the big communication platforms referred to by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, which people are becoming increasingly committed and dedicated to as part of their lives and ways of communicating around the world, will need to keep their terms of service broad. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe that their terms of service are largely a higher bar than what was in the original Bill, so it is about getting them to adhere to the terms of service. It is not about the measures we put in; it is about how things are enforced. If platforms cannot enforce their terms of service, there is a swingeing fine—£18 million or 10% of their qualifying global turnover. If they do not then put those things right or share with Ofcom their methods of risk assessment, age verification, age assurance, user enforcement and all those other areas, there is a criminal liability attached as well.

As we heard in this morning’s sitting, companies will clearly need to design their services to prevent the spread of illegal content and protect children. Ofcom will have that broad power to require information from companies to assess compliance with the rules. As I keep saying, platforms have that strong commercial incentive to tackle harmful content, and the major companies already prohibit most of the harmful and abusive content that we talked about this morning, but they are just not readily enforcing that. Their business model does not lend itself to enforcing that legislation, so we have to change that impetus so that they adhere to their moral, as well as their legal, duties.

For that reason, which has been well addressed in the main Chamber and which we will continue to talk about the Bill continues its passage, this legislation finds the right balance between protecting free speech and freedom of expression, which are vital aims, and protecting vulnerable adults and particularly children. These user empowerment duties are about giving users greater control over their online experience, very much as a safety net, but understanding the risk assessments that each platform will have to provide. It is right that the Bill empowers vulnerable people who may find certain types of legal content unhelpful or harmful, depending on their personal circumstances. We had the sentence from the hon. Member for Warrington North about people’s different experiences, so it is right that people can change and enforce their own experience with that safety net.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North 2:15, 13 Rhagfyr 2022

One of the examples I alluded to, which is particularly offensive for Jewish people, LGBT people and other people who were persecuted in the Nazi holocaust, is holocaust denial. Does the Minister seriously think that it is only Jewish people, LGBT people and other people who were persecuted in the holocaust who find holocaust denial offensive and objectionable and who do not want to see it as part of their online experience? Surely having these sorts of safety nets in place and saying that we do not think that certain kinds of content—although they may not be against the law—have a place online protects everyone’s experience, whether they are Jewish or not. Surely, no one wants to see holocaust denial online.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

No, but there is freedom of expression to a point—when it starts to reach into illegality. We have to have the balance right: someone can say something in public—in any session offline—but what the hon. Lady is suggesting is that, as soon as they hit a keyboard or a smartphone, there are two totally different regimes. That is not getting the balance right.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North

The Minister says that we should have freedom of speech up to a point. Does that point include holocaust denial? He has just suggested that if something is acceptable to say in person, which I do not think holocaust denial should be, it should be acceptable online. Surely holocaust denial is objectionable whenever it happens, in whatever context—online or offline.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I have been clear about where I set the line. [Interruption.] I have said that if something is illegal, it is illegal. The terms of service of the platforms largely cover the list that we are talking about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and I have both said, the terms of service of the vast majority of platforms—the big category 1 platforms—set a higher bar than was in our original Bill. The hon. Member for Luton North talked about whether we should have more evidence. I understand that the pre-legislative scrutiny committee heard evidence and came to a unanimous conclusion that the “legal but harmful” conditions should not be in the Bill.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Llafur, Batley and Spen

A few moments ago, the Minister compared the online world to the real world. Does he agree that they are not the same? Sadly, the sort of thing that someone says in the pub on a Friday night to two or three of their friends is very different from someone saying something dangerously harmful online that can reach millions and billions of people in a very short space of time. The person who spoke in the pub might get up the following morning and regret what they said, but no harm was done. Once something is out there in the online world, very serious damage can be done very quickly.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I talked about the offline world rather than the real world, but clearly that can happen. That is where the balance has to be struck, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. It is not black and white; it is a spectrum of greys. Any sensible person can soon see when they stray into areas that we have talked about such as holocaust denial and extremism, but we do not want to penalise people who invariably are testing their freedom of expression.

It is a fine balance, but I think that we have reached the right balance between protecting freedom of expression and protecting vulnerable adults by having three layers of checks. The first is illegality. The second is enforcing the terms of service, which provide a higher bar than we had in the original Bill for the vast majority of platforms, so that we can see right at the beginning how they will be enforced by the platforms. If they change them and do not adhere them, Ofcom can step in. Ofcom can step in at any point to ensure that they are being enforced. The third is a safety net.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

On illegal content, is the Minister proposing that the Government will introduce new legislation to make, for example, holocaust denial and eating disorder content illegal, whether it is online or offline? If he is saying that the bar in the online and offline worlds should be the same, will the Government introduce more hate crime legislation?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Hate crime legislation will always be considered by the Ministry of Justice, but I am not committing to any changes. That is beyond my reach, but the two shields that we talked about are underpinned by a safety net.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the risk assessments that will be done on the priority illegal offences are very wide ranging, in addition to the risk assessments that will be done on meeting the terms of service? They will include racially and religiously motivated harassment, and putting people in fear of violence. A lot of the offences that have been discussed in the debate would already be covered by the adult safety risk assessments in the Bill.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I absolutely agree. As I said in my opening remarks about the racial abuse picked up in relation to the Euro 2020 football championship, that would have been against the terms and conditions of all those platforms, but it still happened as the platforms were not enforcing those terms and conditions. Whether we put them on a list in the Bill or talk about them in the terms of the service, they need to be enforced, but the terms of service are there.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

On that point, does my hon. Friend also agree that the priority legal offences are important too? People were prosecuted for what they posted on Twitter and Instagram about the England footballers, so that shows that we understand what racially motivated offences are and that people are prosecuted for them. The Bill will require a minimum regulatory standard that meets that threshold and requires companies to act in cases such as that one, where we know what this content is, what people are posting and what is required. Not only will the companies have to act, but they will have to complete risk assessments to demonstrate how they will do that.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Indeed. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and that is a good example of enforcement being used. People can be prosecuted if such abuse appears on social media, but a black footballer, who would otherwise have seen that racial abuse, can choose in the user enforcement to turn that off so that he does not see it. That does not mean that we cannot pursue a prosecution for racial abuse via a third-party complaint or via the platform.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Llafur, Wallasey

Order. Could the Minister address his remarks through the Chair so that I do not have to look at his back?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I apologise, Dame Angela. I will bring my remarks to a close by saying that with those triple shields, we have the protections and the fine balance that we need.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Rhif adran 1 Online Safety Bill — Clause 12 - Adults’ risk assessment duties

Ie: 6 MPs

Na: 9 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.