New Clause 1 - OFCOM’s guidance: content that is harmful to children and user empowerment

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 15 Rhagfyr 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

“(1) OFCOM must produce guidance for providers of Part 3 services which contains examples of content or kinds of content that OFCOM consider to be, or consider not to be— OFCOM must produce guidance for providers of Category 1 services which contains examples of content or kinds of content that OFCOM consider to be, or consider not to be, content to which section 14(2) applies (see section 14(8A)).

(a) primary priority content that is harmful to children, or

(b) priority content that is harmful to children.

(2) Before producing any guidance under this section (including revised or replacement guidance), OFCOM must consult such persons as they consider appropriate.

(3) OFCOM must publish guidance under this section (and any revised or replacement guidance).”—

This new clause requires OFCOM to give guidance to providers in relation to the kinds of content that OFCOM consider to be content that is harmful to children and content relevant to the duty in clause 14(2) (user empowerment).

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 12:45, 15 Rhagfyr 2022

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Government are committed to empowering adults to have greater control over their online experience, and to protecting children from seeing harmful content online. New clause 1 places a new duty on Ofcom to produce and publish guidance for providers of user-to-user regulated services, in relation to the crucial aims of empowering adults and providers having effective systems and processes in place. The guidance will provide further clarity, including through

“examples of content or kinds of content that OFCOM consider to be…primary priority” or

“priority content that is harmful to children.”

Ofcom will also have to produce guidance that sets out examples of content that it considers to be relevant to the user empowerment duties, as set out in amendment 15 to clause 14.

It is really important that expert opinion is considered in the development of this guidance, and the new clause places a duty on Ofcom to consult with relevant persons when producing sets of guidance. That will ensure that the views of subject matter experts are reflected appropriately.

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

Labour is pleased to see the introduction of the new clause, which clarifies the role of Ofcom in delivering guidance to providers about their duties. Specifically, the new clause will require Ofcom to give guidance to providers on the kind of content that Ofcom considers to be harmful to children, or relevant to the user empowerment duty in clause 14. That is a very welcome addition indeed.

Labour remains concerned about exactly how these so-called user empowerment tools will work in practice—we have discussed that at length—and let us face it: we have had little assurance from the Minister on that point. We welcome the new clause, as it clarifies what guidance providers can expect to receive from Ofcom once the Bill is finally enacted. We can all recognise that Ofcom has a colossal task ahead of it—the Minister said so himself—so it is particularly welcome that the guidance will be subject to consultation with those that it deems appropriate. I can hope only that that will include the experts, and the many groups that provided expertise, support and guidance on internet regulation long before the Bill even received its First Reading, a long time ago. There are far too many of those experts and groups to list, but it is fundamental that the experts who often spot online harms before they properly emerge be consulted and included in this process if we are to truly capture the priority harms to children, as the new clause intends.

We also welcome the clarification in subsection (2) that Ofcom will be required to provide “examples of content” that would be considered to be—or not be—harmful. These examples will be key to ensuring that the platforms have nowhere to hide when it comes to deciding what is harmful; there will be no grey area. Ofcom will have the power to show them exact examples of what could be deemed harmful.

We recognise, however, that there is subjectivity to the work that Ofcom will have to do once the Bill passes. On priority content, it is most important that providers are clear about what is and is not acceptable; that is why we welcome the new clause, but we do of course wish that the Government applied the same logic to harm pertaining to adults online.

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

I am also happy to support new clause 1, but I have a couple of questions. It mentions that “replacement guidance” may be provided, which is important because, as we have said a number of times, things will change, and we will end up with a different online experience; that can happen quickly. I am glad that Ofcom has the ability to refresh and update the guidance.

My question is about timelines. There do not seem to be any timelines in the new clause for when the guidance is required to be published. It is key that the guidance be published before companies and organisations have to comply with it. My preference would be for it to be published as early as possible. There may well need to be more work, and updated versions of the guidance may therefore need to be published, but I would rather companies had an idea of the direction of travel, and what they must comply with, as soon as possible, knowing that it might be tweaked. That would be better than waiting until the guidance was absolutely perfect and definitely the final version, but releasing it just before people had to start complying with it. I would like an assurance that Ofcom will make publishing the guidance a priority, so that there is enough time to ensure compliance. We want the Bill to work; it will not work if people do not know what they have to comply with. Assurance on that would be helpful.

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

I absolutely give that assurance to the hon. Lady; that is important. We all want the measures to be implemented, and the guidance to be out there, as soon as possible. Just now I talked about the platforms bringing in measures as soon as possible, without waiting for the implementation period. They can do that far better if they have the guidance. We are already working with Ofcom to ensure that the implementation period is as short as possible, and we will continue to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.