Clause 18 - Duty about content reporting

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:30 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment made: 18, in clause 18, page 19, line 15, leave out subsection (5).—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment is consequential on the removal of the adult safety duties (see Amendments 6, 7 and 41.)

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

I beg to move amendment 19, in clause 18, page 19, line 32, leave out from “also” to second “section”.

This is a technical amendment relating to Amendment 20.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Llafur, Wallasey

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 20 and 21, 26 and 27, 30, 34 and 35, 67, 71, 46 and 47, 50, 53, 55 to 57, and 95.

Government new clause 3—Duty not to act against users except in accordance with terms of service.

Government new clause 4—Further duties about terms of service.

Government new clause 5—OFCOM’s guidance about duties set out in sections (Duty not to act against users except in accordance with terms of service) and (Further

duties about terms of service).

Government new clause 6—Interpretation of this Chapter.

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

I am seeking to impose new duties on category 1 services to ensure that they are held accountable to their terms of service and to protect free speech. Under the status quo, companies get to decide what we do and do not see online. They can arbitrarily ban users or remove their content without offering any form of due process and with very few avenues for users to achieve effective redress. On the other hand, companies’ terms of service are often poorly enforced, if at all.

I have mentioned before the horrendous abuse suffered by footballers around the 2020 Euro final, despite most platforms’ terms and conditions clearly not allowing that sort of content. There are countless similar instances, for example, relating to antisemitic abuse—as we have heard—and other forms of hate speech, that fall below the criminal threshold.

This group of amendments relates to a series of new duties that will fundamentally reset the relationship between platforms and their users. The duties will prevent services from arbitrarily removing content or suspending users without offering users proper avenues to appeal. At the same time, they will stop companies making empty promises to their users about their terms of service. The duties will ensure that where companies say they will remove content or ban a user, they actually do.

Government new clause 3 is focused on protecting free speech. It would require providers of category 1 services to remove or restrict access to content, or ban or suspend users, only where this is consistent with their terms of service. Ofcom will oversee companies’ systems and processes for discharging those duties, rather than supervising individual decisions.

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

I am grateful for what the Minister has said, and glad that Ofcom will have a role in seeing that companies do not remove content that is not in breach of terms of service where there is no legal requirement to do so. In other areas of the Bill where these duties exist, risk assessments are to be conducted and codes of practice are in place. Will there similarly be risk assessments and codes of practice to ensure that companies comply with their freedom of speech obligations?

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

Absolutely. As I say, it is really important that people understand right at the beginning, through risk assessments, what they are signing up for and what they can expect. To come back to the point of whether someone is an adult or a child, it is really important that parents lean in when it comes to children’s protections; that is a very important tool in the armoury.

New clause 4 will require providers of category 1 services to ensure that what their terms of service say about their content moderation policies is clear and accessible. Those terms have to be easy for users to understand, and should have sufficient detail, so that users know what to expect, in relation to moderation actions. Providers of category 1 services must apply their terms of service consistently, and they must have in place systems and processes that enable them to enforce their terms of service consistently.

These duties will give users the ability to report any content or account that they suspect does not meet a platform’s terms of service. They will also give users the ability to make complaints about platforms’ moderation actions, and raise concerns if their content is removed in error. Providers will be required to take appropriate action in response to complaints. That could include removing content that they prohibit, or reinstating content removed in error. These duties ensure that providers are made aware of issues to do with their services and require them to take action to resolve them, to keep users safe, and to uphold users’ rights to free speech.

The duties set out in new clauses 3 and 4 will not apply to illegal content, content that is harmful to children or consumer content. That is because illegal content and content that is harmful to children are covered by existing duties in the Bill, and consumer content is already regulated under consumer protection legislation. Companies will also be able to remove any content where they have a legal obligation to do so, or where the user is committing a criminal offence, even if that is not covered in their terms of service.

New clause 5 will require Ofcom to publish guidance to help providers of category 1 services to understand what they need to do to comply with their new duties. That could include guidance on how to make their terms of service clear and easy for users to understand, and how to operate an effective reporting and redress mechanism. The guidance will not prescribe what types of content companies should include in their terms of service, or how they should treat such content. That will be for companies to decide, based on their knowledge of their users, and their brand and commercial incentives, and subject to their other legal obligations.

New clause 6 clarifies terms used in new clauses 3 and 4. It also includes a definition of “Consumer content”, which is excluded from the main duties in new clauses 3 and 4. This covers content that is already regulated by the Competition and Markets Authority and other consumer protection bodies, such as content that breaches the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. These definitions are needed to provide clarity to companies seeking to comply with the duties set out in new clauses 3 and 4.

The remaining amendments to other provisions in the Bill are consequential on the insertion of these new transparency, accountability and free speech duties. They insert references to the new duties in, for example, the provisions about content reporting, enforcement, transparency and reviewing compliance. That will ensure that the duties apply properly to the new measure.

Amendment 30 removes the duty on platforms to include clear and accessible provisions in their terms of service informing users that they have a right of action in court for breach of contract if a platform removes or restricts access to their content in violation of its terms of service. This is so that the duty can be moved to new clause 4, which focuses on ensuring that platforms comply with their terms of service. The replacement duty in new clause 4 will go further than the original duty, in that it will cover suspensions and bans of users as well as restrictions on content.

Amendments 46 and 47 impose a new duty on Ofcom to have regard to the need for it to be clear to providers of category 1 services what they must do to comply with their new duties. These amendments will also require Ofcom to have regard to the extent to which providers of category 1 services are demonstrating, in a transparent and accountable way, how they are complying with their new duties.

Lastly, amendment 95 temporarily exempts video-sharing platforms that are category 1 services from the new terms of service duties, as set out in new clauses 3 and 4, until the Secretary of State agrees that the Online Safety Bill is sufficiently implemented. This approach simultaneously maximises user protections by the temporary continuation of the VSP regime and minimises burdens for services and Ofcom. The changes are central to the Government’s intention to hold companies accountable for their promises. They will protect users in a way that is in line with companies’ terms of service. They are a critical part of the triple shield, which aims to protect adults online. It ensures that users are safe by requiring companies to remove illegal content, enforce their terms of service and provide users with tools to control their online experiences. Equally, these changes prevent arbitrary or random content removal, which helps to protect pluralistic and robust debate online. For those reasons, I hope that Members can support the amendments.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy) 3:45, 13 Rhagfyr 2022

This is an extremely large grouping so, for the sake of the Committee, I will do my best to keep my comments focused and brief where possible. I begin by addressing Government new clauses 3 and 4 and the consequential amendments.

Government new clause 3 introduces new duties that aim to ensure that the largest or most risky online service providers design systems and processes that ensure they cannot take down or restrict content in a way prevents a person from seeing it without further action by the user, or ban users, except in accordance with their own terms of service, or if the content breaks the law or contravenes the Online Safety Bill regime. This duty is referred to as the duty not to act against users except in accordance with terms of service. In reality, that will mean that the focus remains far too much on the banning, taking down and restriction of content, rather than our considering the systems and processes behind the platforms that perpetuate harm.

Labour has long held the view that the Government have gone down an unhelpful cul-de-sac on free speech. Instead of focusing on defining exactly which content is or is not harmful, the Bill should be focused on the processes by which harmful content is amplified on social media. We must recognise that a person posting a racist slur online that nobody notices, shares or reads is significantly less harmful than a post that can quickly go viral, and can within hours gain millions of views or shares. We have talked a lot in this place about Kanye West and the comments he has made on Twitter in the past few weeks. It is safe to say that a comment by Joe Bloggs in Hackney that glorifies Hitler does not have the same reach or produce the same harm as Kanye West saying exactly the same thing to his 30 million Twitter followers.

Our approach has the benefit of addressing the things that social media companies can control—for example, how content spreads—rather than the things they cannot control, such as what people say online. It reduces the risk to freedom of speech because it tackles how content is shared, rather than relying entirely on taking down harmful content. Government new clause 4 aims to improve the effectiveness of platforms’ terms of service in conjunction with the Government’s new triple shield, which the Committee has heard a lot about, but the reality is they are ultimately seeking to place too much of the burden of protection on extremely flexible and changeable terms of service.

If a provider’s terms of service say that certain types of content are to be taken down or restricted, then providers must run systems and processes to ensure that that can happen. Moreover, people must be able to report breaches easily, through a complaints service that delivers appropriate action, including when the service receives complaints about the provider. This “effectiveness” duty is important but somewhat misguided.

The Government, having dropped some of the “harmful but legal” provisions, seem to expect that if large and risky services—the category 1 platforms—claim to be tackling such material, they must deliver on that promise to the customer and user. This reflects a widespread view that companies may pick and choose how to apply their terms of service, or implement them loosely and interchangeably, as we have heard. Those failings will lead to harm when people encounter things that they would not have thought would be there when they signed up. All the while, service providers that do not fall within category 1 need not enforce their terms of service, or may do so erratically or discriminatorily. That includes search engines, no matter how big.

This large bundle of amendments seems to do little to actually keep people safe online. I have already made my concerns about the Government’s so-called triple shield approach to internet safety clear, so I will not repeat myself. We fundamentally believe that the Government’s approach, which places too much of the onus on the user rather than the platform, is wrong. We therefore cannot support the approach that is taken in the amendments. That being said, the Minister can take some solace from knowing that we see the merits of Government new clause 5, which

“requires OFCOM to give guidance to providers about complying with the duties imposed by NC3 and NC4”.

If this is the avenue that the Government insist on going down, it is absolutely vital that providers are advised by Ofcom on the processes they will be required to take to comply with these new duties.

Amendment 19 agreed to.

Amendment made: 20, in clause 18, page 19, line 33, at end insert

“, and

(b) section (Further duties about terms of service)(5)(a) (reporting of content that terms of service allow to be taken down or restricted).”—

This amendment inserts a signpost to the new provision about content reporting inserted by NC4.

Clause 18, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.