Clause 65 - Transparency reports about certain Part 3 services

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:30 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

As we know, this clause requires providers of relevant services to publish annual transparency reports and sets out Ofcom’s powers in relation to those reports. The information set out in transparency reports is intended to help users to understand the steps that providers are taking to help keep them safe and to provide Ofcom with the information required to hold them to account.

These duties on regulated services are very welcome indeed. Labour has long held the view that mandatory transparency reporting and reporting mechanisms are vital to hold platforms to account, and to understand the true nature of how online harm is driven and perpetuated on the internet.

I will reiterate the points that were made in previous Committee sittings about our concerns about the regularity of these transparency reports. I note that, sadly, those reports remain unchanged and therefore they will only have to be submitted to Ofcom annually. It is important that the Minister truly considers the rapid rate at which the online world can change and develop, so I urge him to reconsider this point and to make these reports a biannual occurrence. Labour firmly believes that increasing the frequency of the transparency reports will ensure that platforms and services remain on the pulse, and are forced to be aware of and act on emergent risks. In turn, that would compel Ofcom to do the same in its role as an industry regulator.

I must also put on the record some of our concerns about subsections (12) and (13), which state that the Secretary of State of the day could amend by regulation the frequency of the transparency reporting, having consulted Ofcom first. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that this approach will not result in our ending up in a position where, perhaps because of Ofcom’s incredible workload, transparency reporting becomes even less frequent than an annual occurrence. We need to see more transparency, not less, so I really hope that he can reassure me on this particular point.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Llafur, Batley and Spen

Does my hon. Friend agree that transparency should be at the heart of this Bill and that the Government have missed an opportunity to accelerate the inclusion of a provision in the Bill, namely the requirement to give researchers and academics access to platform data? Data access must be prioritised in the Bill and without such prioritisation the UK will fall behind the rest of Europe in safety, research and innovation. The accessibility and transparency of that data from a research perspective are really important.

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

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We both made the point at length in previous sittings of the Committee about the need to ensure transparency, access to the data, and access to reporting for academics, civil society and researchers.

That also goes to the point that it is not for this Committee or this Minister—it is not in his gift—to determine something that we have all discussed in this place at length, which is the potential requirement for a standalone Committee specifically to consider online harm. Such a Committee would look at whether this legislation is actively doing what we need it to do, whether it needs to be reviewed, whether it could look at the annual reports from Ofcom to determine the length and breadth of harm on the internet, and whether or not this legislation is actually having an impact. That all goes to the heart of transparency, openness and the review that we have been talking about.

I want to go further and raise concerns about how public the reports will be, as we have touched on. The Government claim that their so-called triple shield approach will give users of platforms and services more power and knowledge to understand the harms that they may discover online. That is in direct contradiction to the Bill’s current approach, which does not provide any clarity about exactly how the transparency reports will be made available to the public. In short, we feel that the Government are missing a significant opportunity. We have heard many warnings about what can happen when platforms are able to hide behind a veil of secrecy. I need only point to the revelations of whistleblowers, including Frances Haugen, to highlight the importance of that point.

As the Bill stands, once Ofcom has issued a notice, companies will have to produce a transparency report that

“must…be published in the manner and by the date specified in the notice”.

I want to press the Minister on that and ask him to clarify the wording. We are keen for the reports to be published publicly and in an accessible way, so that users, civil society, researchers and anyone else who wants to see them can make sense of them. The information contained in the transparency reports is critical to analysing trends and harms, so I hope that the Minister will clarify those points in his response.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Llafur, Batley and Spen

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government are to achieve their objective—which we all share—for the Bill to be world-leading legislation, we cannot rely on whistleblowers to tell us what is really going on in the online space? That is why transparency is vital. This is the perfect opportunity to provide that transparency, so that we can do some proper research into what is going on out there. We cannot rely on whistleblowers to give us such information.

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 is absolutely right. We want the Bill to work. We have always wanted the Bill to work. We want it to achieve its aim of keeping children, adults and everyone who uses the internet safe from the harms that are perpetuated there. If there is no transparency, how will we know that the platforms are breaking the rules covertly, and whether they are hiding content and getting round the rules? That is what they do; we know it, because we have heard it from whistleblowers, but we cannot rely on whistleblowers alone to highlight exactly what happens behind the closed doors of the platforms.

We need the transparency and the reports to be made public, so that we can see whether the legislation is working. If that does not happen, although we have waited five years, we will need another piece of legislation to fix it. We know that the Bill is not perfect, and the Minister knows that—he has said so himself—but, ultimately, we need to know that it works. If it does not, we have a responsibility as legislators to put something in place that does. Transparency is the only way in which we will figure that out.

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

I want to add to the brilliant points made by my hon. Friend the shadow Minister, in particular on the continually changing nature of market forces, which the Minister himself referenced. We want innovation. We want the tech companies to innovate—preferably ones in the UK—but we do not want to be playing catch-up as we are now, making legislation retrospectively to right wrongs that have taken place because our legislative process has been too slow to deal with the technological changes and the changes in social media, in apps, and with how we access data and communicate with one another online. The bare minimum is a biannual report.

Within six months, if a new piece of technology comes up, it does not simply stay with one app or platform; that technology will be leapfrogged by others. Such technological advances can take place at a very rapid pace. The transparency aspect is important, because people should have a right to know what they are using and whether it is safe. We as policy makers should have a right to know clearly whether the legislation that we have introduced, or the legislation that we want to amend or update, is effective.

If we look at any other approach that we take to protect the health and safety of the people in our country—the people we all represent in our constituencies —we always say that prevention is better than cure. At the moment, without transparency and without researchers being able to update the information we need to see, we will constantly be playing catch-up with digital tech.

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

This may be the only place in the Bill where I do not necessarily agree wholeheartedly with the Labour Front Benchers. I agree with the vast majority of what was said, but I have some concerns about making mandatory the requirement for transparency reports to be public in all circumstances, because there are circumstances in which that would simply highlight loopholes, allowing people to exploit them in a way that we do not want them to do.

Specifically on the regularity of reporting and some level of transparency, given that the Minister is keen on the commercial imperative and ensuring that people are safe, we need a higher level of transparency than we currently see among the platforms. There is a very good case to be made for some of the transparency reporting to be made public, particularly for the very largest platforms to be required to make it public, or to make sections of it public.

I want to talk about the speed of change to the terms of service and about proportionality. If Ofcom could request transparency reporting only annually, imagine that it received transparency information three days before Elon Musk took over Twitter. Twitter would be a completely different place three days later, and Ofcom would be unable to ask for more transparency information for a whole year, by which point a significant amount of damage could have been done. We have seen that the terms of service can change quickly. Ofcom would not have the flexibility to ask for an updated transparency report, even if drastic changes were made to the services.

Another thing slightly concerns me about doing this annually and not allowing a bit more flexibility. Let us say that a small platform that none of us has ever heard of, such as Mastodon, shoots to prominence overnight. Let us also say that, as a small platform, Mastodon was previously regulated, and Ofcom had made a request for transparency information shortly before Elon Musk took over Twitter and people had migrated to Mastodon. Mastodon would now be suffering from very different issues than those it had when it had a small number of users, compared with the significant number that it has now. It would have changed dramatically, yet Ofcom would not have the flexibility to seek that information. We know that platforms in the online world have sudden stellar increases in popularity overnight. Some have been bubbling along for ages with nobody using them. Not all of them are brand-new platforms that suddenly shoot to prominence. The lack of flexibility is a problem.

Lastly, I agree about researchers being able to access the transparency information provided. It is really important that we recognise that Ofcom is not the only expert. Ofcom has a huge amount of expertise, and it is massively increasing its staff numbers to cope with these issues, but the reality is that those staff are not academic researchers. They are unable to look at the issues and are not necessarily the most prominent experts in the field of child protection, for example. That is not to take away from the expertise in Ofcom, but we could allow it to ask a regulated group of researchers to look at the information and point out any issues that may not have been spotted, particularly given the volume of transparency reports that there are likely to be.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Llafur, Batley and Spen

The hon. Lady makes an important point. In terms of transparency, the question for me is, what are the Government worried about? Surely part of the Bill is about finding out what is really going on, and the only way that we will do that is by having access to the information. The more transparency, the better. The hon. Lady is right that having experts who can research what is going on is fundamental. If there is a concern around the workload for Ofcom, that is a separate issue that the Minister needs to address, but surely the more work that is done in terms of research and transparency, the better.

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

We have seen that just from the people from external organisations who have contacted us about the Bill. The amount of expertise that we do not have that they have brought to the table has significantly improved the debate and hopefully the Bill. Even prior to the consultations that have happened, that encouraged the Minister to make the Bill better. Surely that is why the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee looked at the Bill—in order to improve it and to get expert advice. I still think that having specific access to expertise in order to analyse the transparency report has not been covered adequately.

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

Annual transparency reporting is an important part of how the system will work. Transparency is one of the most important aspects of how the Online Safety Bill works, because without it companies can hide behind the transparency reports they produce at the moment, which give no transparency at all. For example, Facebook and YouTube report annually that their AI finds 95% of the hate speech they remove, but Frances Haugen said that they removed only 5% of the hate speech. So the transparency report means that they remove 95% of 5%, and that is one of the fundamental problems. The Bill gives the regulator the power to know, and the regulator then has to make informed decisions based on the information it has access to.

Ofcom is also acting with statutory powers, which is different from how other researchers or organisations that might be appointed would work. The nature of the relationship between Ofcom and the regulated platforms is very different from that with a company that is open to independent scrutiny from independent researchers. Of course, the Bill does not limit Ofcom to just doing annual transparency reports. Ofcom can appoint what I think the Bill calls a “skilled person”, although I think an Ofcom special agent is a better description. At any time, Ofcom can appoint a skilled person—an expert—to go into the company and analyse particular problems. If it was a case of a change of ownership and new risks on the platform that were not previously foreseen, or a big concern about the platform’s performance, Ofcom can appoint that person.

Of course, Ofcom would be free to appoint outside experts, not just people from within the organisation. It could bring in a specialist with particular knowledge of an area where it had concerns. It could do that at any time and appoint as many people as it liked.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North 4:45, 13 Rhagfyr 2022

As much as I am keen on the idea of Ofcom special agents conceptually, my concern on the transparency front is that, to appoint a special agent and send them in to look at the data, Ofcom would have to have cause to believe that there was an issue of concern with the data, whereas if that data is more transparently available to the research community, they can then proactively identify things that they can flag to Ofcom as a concern. Without that, we are relying on an annual cycle of Ofcom being able to intervene only when they have a concern, rather than the research community, which is much better placed to make that determination, being able to keep a watching brief on the company.

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

That concern would be triggered by Ofcom discovering things as a consequence of user complaint. Although Ofcom is not a complaint resolution company, users can complain to it. Independent academics and researchers may produce studies and reports highlighting problems at any time, so Ofcom does not have to wait through an annual cycle of transparency reporting. At any time, Ofcom can say, “We want to have a deeper look at this problem.” It could be something Ofcom or someone else has discovered, and Ofcom can either research that itself or appoint an outside expert.

As the hon. Member for Warrington North mentioned, very sensitive information might become apparent through the transparency reporting that one might not necessarily wish to make public because it requires further investigation and could highlight a particular flaw that could be exploited by bad actors. I would hope and expect, as I think we all would, that we would have the routine publication of transparency reporting to give people assurance that the platforms are meeting their obligations. Indeed, if Ofcom were to intervene against a platform, it would probably use information gathered and received to provide the rationale for why a fine has been issued or another intervention has been made. I am sure that Ofcom will draw all the time on information gathered through transparency reporting and, where relevant, share it.

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

This has been a helpful debate. Everyone was right that transparency must be and is at the heart of the Bill. From when we were talking earlier today about how risk assessments and terms of service must be accessible to all, through to this transparency reporting section, it is important that we hold companies to account and that the reports play a key role in allowing users, Ofcom and civil society, including those in academia, to understand the steps that companies are taking to protect users.

Under clause 65, category 1 services, category 2A search services and category 2B user-to-user services need to publish transparency reports annually in accordance with the transparency report notice from Ofcom. That relates to the points about commerciality that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe talked about. Ofcom will set out what information is required from companies in their notice, which will also specify the format, manner and deadline for the information to be provided to Ofcom. Clearly, it would not be proportionate to require every service provider within the scope of the overall regulatory framework to produce a transparency report—it is also important that we deal with capacity and proportionality—but those category threshold conditions will ensure that the framework is flexible and future-proofed.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Llafur, Warrington North

I note what the Minister said about the commercial implications of some of these things, and some of those commercial implications might act as levers to push companies to do better on some things. By that same token, should this information not be more transparent and publicly available to give the user the choice he referred to earlier? That would mean that if a user’s data was not being properly protected and these companies were not taking the measures around safety that the public would expect, users can vote with their feet and go to a different platform. Surely that underpins a lot of what we have been talking about.

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

Yes, and that is why Ofcom will be the one that decides which information should be published, and from whom, to ensure that it is proportionate. At the end of the day, I have talked about the fact that transparency is at the heart of the Bill and that the transparency reports are important. To go to the original point raised by the hon. Member for Pontypridd about when these reports will be published, they will indeed be published in accordance with subsection 3(d) of the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 65 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.