Clause 82 - Meaning of threshold conditions etc

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:30 am ar 15 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 11:30, 15 Rhagfyr 2022

I beg to move amendment 48, in clause 82, page 72, line 21, at end insert—

“(ca) a regulated user-to-user service meets the conditions in section (List of emerging Category 1 services)(2) if those conditions are met in relation to the user-to-user part of the service;”.

This is a technical amendment ensuring that references to user-to-user services in the new clause inserted by NC7 relate to the user-to-user part of the service.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Llafur, Wallasey

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 49.

Government new clause 7—List of emerging Category 1 services.

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

These Government amendments confer a duty on Ofcom to create and publish a list of companies that are approaching the category 1 threshold to ensure that it proactively identifies emerging high-reach, high-influence companies and is ready to add them to the category 1 register without delay. That is being done in recognition of the rapid pace of change in the tech industry, in which companies can grow quickly. The changes mean that Ofcom can designate companies as category 1 at pace. That responds to concerns that platforms could be unexpectedly popular and quickly grow in size, and that there could be delays in capturing them as category 1 platforms. Amendments 48 and 49 are consequential on new clause 7, which confers a duty on Ofcom to create and publish a list of companies that are approaching the category 1 threshold. For those reasons, I recommend that the amendments be accepted.

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

It will come as no surprise to Members to hear that we have serious concerns about the system of categorisation and the threshold conditions for platforms and service providers, given our long-standing view that the approach taken is far too inflexible.

In previous sittings, we raised the concern that the Government have not provided enough clarity about what will happen if a service is required to shift from one category to another, and how long that will take. We remain unclear about that, about how shifting categories will work in practice, and about how long Ofcom will have to preside over such changes and decisions.

I have been following this Bill closely for just over a year, and I recognise that the online space is constantly changing and evolving. New technologies are popping up that will make this categorisation process even more difficult. The Government must know that their approach does not capture smaller, high-harm platforms, which we know—we have debated this several times—can be at the root of some of the most dangerous and harmful content out there. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government amendments will allow Ofcom to consider adding such small, high-harm platforms to category 1, given the risk of harm?

More broadly, we are pleased that the Government tabled new clause 7, which will require Ofcom to prepare and update a list of regulated user-to-user services that have 75% of the number of users of a category 1 service, and at least one functionality of a category 1 service, or one required combination of a functionality and another characteristic or factor of a category 1 service. It is absolutely vital that Ofcom, as the regulator, is sufficiently prepared, and that there is monitoring of regulated user-to-user services so that this regime is as flexible as possible and able to cope with the rapid changes in the online space. That is why the Opposition support new clause 7 and have not sought to amend it. Moreover, we also support Government amendments 48 and 49, which are technical amendments to ensure that new clause 7 references user-to-user services and assessments of those services appropriately. I want to press the Minister on how he thinks these categories will work, and on Ofcom’s role in that.

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

I agree with everything that the hon. Lady said. New clause 7 is important. It was missing from the earlier iterations of the Bill, and it makes sense to have it here, but it raises further concerns about the number of people who are required to use a service before it is classed as category 1. We will come later to our amendment 104 to schedule 11, which is about adding high-risk platforms to the categorisation.

I am still concerned that the numbers are a pretty blunt instrument for categorising something as category 1. The number may end up being particularly high. I think it would be very easy for the number to be wrong—for it to be too high or too low, and probably too high rather than too low.

If Twitter were to disappear, which, given the changing nature of the online world, is not outside the realms of possibility, we could see a significant number of other platforms picking up the slack. A lot of them might have fewer users, but the same level of risk as platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. I am still concerned that choosing a number is a very difficult thing to get right, and I am not totally convinced that the Government’s way of going about this is right.

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

Ofcom will assess services that are close to meeting the threshold conditions of category 1 services and will publish a publicly available list of those emerging high-risk services. A service would have to meet two conditions to be added to the emerging services list: it would need at least 75% of the number of user figures in any category 1 threshold condition, and at least one functionality of a category 1 threshold condition, or one specified combination of a functionality and a characteristic or factor of a category 1 threshold condition.

Ofcom will monitor the emergence of new services. If it becomes apparent that a service has grown sufficiently to meet the threshold of becoming a category 1 service, Ofcom will be required to add that service to the register. The new clause and the consequential amendments take into account the possibility of quick growth.

Following the removal of “legal but harmful” duties, category 1 services will be subject to new transparency, accountability and free speech duties, as well as duties relating to protection for journalists and democratic content. Requiring all companies to comply with that full range of category 1 duties would pose a disproportionate regulatory burden on smaller companies that do not exert the same influence on public discourse, and that would possibly divert those companies’ resources away from tackling vital tasks.

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

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the risk assessments for illegal content—the priority illegal offences; the worst kind of content—apply to all services, whether or not they are category 1?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All companies will still have to tackle the risk assessment, and will have to remove illegal content. We are talking about the extra bits that could take a disproportionate amount of resource from core functions that we all want to see around child protection.

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

I would push the Minister further. He mentioned that there will not be an onus on companies to tackle the “legal but harmful” duty now that it has been stripped from the Bill, but we know that disinformation, particularly around elections in this country, is widespread on these high-harm platforms, and they will not be in scope of category 2. We have debated that at length. We have debated the time it could take Ofcom to act and put those platforms into category 1. Given the potential risk of harm to our democracy as a result, will the Minister press Ofcom to act swiftly in that regard? We cannot put that in the Bill now, but time is of the essence.

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

Absolutely. The Department has techniques for dealing with misinformation and disinformation as well, but we will absolutely push Ofcom to work as quickly as possible. As my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright, the former Secretary of State, has said, once an election is done, it is done and it cannot be undone.

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

Could the Minister also confirm that the provisions of the National Security Bill read across to the Online Safety Bill? Where disinformation is disseminated by networks operated by hostile foreign states, particularly Russia, as has often been the case, that is still in scope. That will still require a risk assessment for all platforms, whether or not they are category 1.

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

Indeed. We need to take a wide-ranging, holistic view of disinformation and misinformation, especially around election times. There is a suite of measures available to us, but it is still worth pushing Ofcom to make sure that it works as quickly as possible.

Amendment 48 agreed to.

Amendment made: 49, in clause 82, page 72, line 23, after “conditions” insert

“or the conditions in section (List of emerging Category 1 services)(2)”.—(Paul Scully.)

This is a technical amendment ensuring that references to assessments of user-to-user services in the new clause inserted by NC7 relate to the user-to-user part of the service.

Clause 82, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.