Clause 19 - Duties about complaints procedures

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:45 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment made: 21, in clause 19, page 20, line 15, leave out “, (3) or (4)” and insert “or (3)”.—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment removes a reference to clause 20(4), as that provision is moved to NC4.

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

I beg to move amendment 22, in clause 19, page 20, line 27, leave out from “down” to “and” in line 28 and insert

“or access to it being restricted, or given a lower priority or otherwise becoming less likely to be encountered by other users,”.

NC2 states what is meant by restricting users’ access to content, and this amendment makes a change in line with that, to avoid any implication that downranking is a form of restriction on access to content.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Llafur, Wallasey

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 59.

Government new clause 2—Restricting users’ access to content.

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

These amendments clarify the meaning of “restricting access to content” and “access to content” for the purposes of the Bill. Restricting access to content is an expression that is used in various provisions across the Bill, such as in new clause 2, under which providers of category 1 services will have a duty to ensure that they remove or restrict access to users’ content only where that is in accordance with their terms of service or another legal obligation. There are other such references in clauses 15, 16 and 17.

The amendments make it clear that the expression

“restricting users’ access to content” covers cases where a provider prevents a user from accessing content without that user taking a prior step, or where content is temporarily hidden from a user. They also make it clear that this expression does not cover any restrictions that the provider puts in place to enable users to apply user empowerment tools to limit the content that they encounter, or cases where access to content is controlled by another user, rather than by the provider.

The amendments are largely technical, but they do cover things such as down-ranking. Amendment 22 is necessary because the previous wording of this provision wrongly suggested that down-ranking was covered by the expression “restricting access to content”. Down-ranking is the practice of giving content a lower priority on a user’s feed. The Government intend that users should be able to complain if they feel that their content has been inappropriately down-ranked as a result of the use of proactive technology. This amendment ensures consistency.

I hope that the amendments provide clarity as to the meaning of restricting access to content for those affected by the Bill, and assist providers with complying with their duties.

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

Again, I will keep my comments on clause 19 brief, as we broadly support the intentions behind the clause and the associated measures in the grouping. My hon. Friend Barbara Keeley spoke at length about this important clause, which relates to the all-important complaints procedures available around social media platforms and companies, in the previous Bill Committee.

During the previous Committee, Labour tabled amendments that would have empowered more individuals to make a complaint about search content in the event of non-compliance. In addition, we wanted an external complaints option for individuals seeking redress. Sadly, all those amendments were voted down by the last Committee, but I must once again press the Minister on those points, particularly in the context of the new amendments that have been tabled.

Without redress for individual complaints, once internal mechanisms have been exhausted, victims of online abuse could be left with no further options. Consumer protections could be compromised and freedom of expression, with which the Government seem to be borderline obsessed, could be infringed for people who feel that their content has been unfairly removed.

Government new clause 2 deals with the meaning of references to

“restricting users’ access to content”,

in particular by excluding restrictions resulting from the use of user empowerment tools as described in clause 14. We see amendments 22 and 59 as important components of new clause 2, and are therefore more than happy to support them. However, I reiterate to the Minister and place on the record once again the importance of introducing an online safety ombudsman, which we feel is crucial to new clause 2. The Joint Committee recommended the introduction of such an ombudsman, who would consider complaints when internal routes of redress had not resulted in resolution, had failed to address risk and had led to significant and demonstrable harm. As new clause 2 relates to restricting users’ access to content, we must also ensure that there is an appropriate channel for complaints if there is an issue that users wish to take up around restrictions in accessing content.

By now, the Minister will be well versed in my thoughts on the Government’s approach, and on the reliance on the user empowerment tool approach more broadly. It is fundamentally an error to pursue a regime that is so content-focused. Despite those points, we see the merits in Government amendments 22 and 59, and in new clause 2, so have not sought to table any further amendments at this stage.

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

I am slightly confused, and would appreciate a little clarification from the Minister. I understand what new clause 2 means; if the hon. Member for Pontypridd says that she does not want to see content of a certain nature, and I put something of that nature online, I am not being unfairly discriminated against in any way because she has chosen to opt out of receiving that content. I am slightly confused about the downgrading bit.

I know that an awful lot of platforms use downgrading when there is content that they find problematic, or something that they feel is an issue. Rather than taking that content off the platform completely, they may just no longer put it in users’ feeds, for example; they may move it down the priority list, and that may be part of what they already do to keep people safe. I am not trying to criticise what the Government are doing, but I genuinely do not understand whether that downgrading would still be allowed, whether it would be an issue, and whether people could complain about their content being downgraded because the platform was a bit concerned about it, and needed to check it out and work out what was going on, or if it was taken off users’ feeds.

Some companies, if they think that videos have been uploaded by people who are too young to use the platform, or by a registered child user of the platform, will not serve that content to everybody’s feeds. I will not be able to see something in my TikTok feed that was published by a user who is 13, for example, because there are restrictions on how TikTok deals with and serves that content, in order to provide increased protection and the safety that they want on their services.

Will it still be acceptable for companies to have their own internal downgrading system, in order to keep people safe, when content does not necessarily meet an illegality bar or child safety duty bar? The Minister has not used the phrase “market forces”; I think he said “commercial imperative”, and he has talked a lot about that. Some companies and organisations use downgrading to improve the systems on their site and to improve the user experience on the platform. I would very much appreciate it if the Minister explained whether that will still be the case. If not, will we all have a worse online experience as a result?

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

I will have a go at that, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady if I do not respond as fully as she wants. Down-ranking content is a moderation action, as she says, but it is not always done just to restrict access to content; there are many reasons why people might want to do it. Through these changes, we are saying that the content is not actually being restricted; it can still be seen if it is searched for or otherwise encountered. That is consistent with the clarification.

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

This is quite an important point. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North was talking about recommendation systems. If a platform chooses not to amplify content, that is presumably not covered. As long as the content is accessible, someone could search and find it. That does not inhibit a platform’s decision, for policy reasons or whatever, not to actively promote it.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 4:00, 13 Rhagfyr 2022

Absolutely. There are plenty of reasons why platforms will rank users’ content, including down-ranking it. Providing personal content recommendations will have that process in it as well. It is not practical to specify that restricting access includes down-ranking. That is why we made that change.

Amendment 22 agreed to.

Amendments made: 23, in clause 19, page 21, line 7, leave out from “The” to “complaints” in line 10 and insert

“relevant kind of complaint for Category 1 services is”.

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

Amendment 24, in clause 19, page 21, line 12, leave out sub-paragraph (i).

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 7 (removal of clause 13).

Amendment 25, in clause 19, page 21, line 18, leave out paragraphs (c) and (d).

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

Amendment 26, in clause 19, page 21, line 33, leave out from “also” to second “section”.

This is a technical amendment relating to Amendment 27.

Amendment 27, in clause 19, page 21, line 34, at end insert

“, and

(b) section (Further duties about terms of service)(6) (complaints procedure relating to content that terms of service allow to be taken down or restricted).”—

This amendment inserts a signpost to the new provision about complaints procedures inserted by NC4.

Clause 19, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.