All 22 Lord Stevenson of Balmacara contributions to the Online Safety Act 2023

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Wed 1st Feb 2023
Wed 19th Apr 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Committee stage
Tue 25th Apr 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 27th Apr 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 27th Apr 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2
Tue 2nd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Tue 9th May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Tue 9th May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2
Thu 11th May 2023
Tue 16th May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Tue 16th May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2
Tue 23rd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 25th May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2
Thu 6th Jul 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 1 & Report stage: Minutes of Proceedings
Thu 6th Jul 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 2
Thu 6th Jul 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 3
Mon 10th Jul 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 1
Wed 12th Jul 2023
Mon 17th Jul 2023
Wed 19th Jul 2023
Wed 6th Sep 2023
Tue 19th Sep 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I start by apologising for having absented myself during part of the debate. I promise those noble Lords whose speeches I missed that I will read them very carefully. The reason is slightly self-serving: I decided to tear up my speech, for two reasons. First, I suddenly realised that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, being the brilliant lawyer he has been and still is, would probably say everything I was going to say but better—and indeed that has proved to be the case. There is not much point in me boring noble Lords by trying to repeat what he said. The list of items I had is almost exactly identical. I did not give it to him, but we had an exchange of views before the debate, so I was not surprised by that. I will come on to that point.

Secondly, I want to deal with the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, who challenged me in my very junior position as an acting Front-Bencher to commit the Labour Government to a future policy on media education. I am sure the noble Lord opposite will not out-trump me on this one, but I cannot do that. I will, however, get back at him, because I will say that the BBC has never been in better shape than when he was the PR person operating at the front of it. In fact, I do not think it has recovered since he left, so there you are. I think that what he said was quite important.

One of the big, strange things about media education—in fact, this is true of most education policy—is that it is very hard to get changes in the education system. That is partly because it is now so disparate and uncoordinated in many ways, through policy, that you cannot say that there is a core curriculum, or that it will include media education and that that will be examined on the following days, as they might do in other countries such as France. The Government should think very hard about how they might take forward the idea from the noble Lord, Lord Hastings. My answer is that you have to examine media education or assess it in some way, otherwise schools will not care about it. This is really a question for Ofsted, not Ofcom. In a sense, the Government have got it right there, but if we could put some pressure on Ofsted to include in its assessment of all schools—indeed, all education at that level—some form of ability to assess whether media education is meeting the needs of Ofcom or the needs of society, we might make some progress. Let us work on that together.

I declare an interest as a member of the Joint Committee on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. That was a wonderful experience and has been mentioned by others. I am also a former member of the Communications and Digital Committee. I should also drop in that I am veteran of the Digital Economy Act—much mentioned today—so I have been there, got the scars and am aware of the issues very clearly.

The second reason why I wanted to tear up my speech was that it seemed to me that, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, there has been an extraordinary amount of agreement on the issues facing the House in trying to get this Bill right. They are not fuelled in any sense by party-political points, because we have no political issue in this, and I do not think the Liberal Democrats or Cross Benches have. We are talking about an issue that we want to do together. I will come back at the end with a proposal, which I think is slightly novel, for how we might take advantage of that. I do not think we want to get ourselves into a situation of antagonism—firing amendments across the Dispatch Box during Committee —because we are broadly agreed about where we want to go. Yes, there are difference of detail, but we have to think about it. I want to come back to that as an issue—and that was what I was doing while I was away.

I want to go back to the introduction to the Joint Committee report, as I would have done in my original speech, because it says so much about what we have been doing in the last two or three years. Self-regulation of online services had failed. While the online world has revolutionised our lives and created many benefits, underlying systems designed to service business models based on data harvesting and micro-targeted advertising shape the way we experience it. Algorithms, invisible to the public, decide what we see, hear and experience. For some service providers, this means valuing the engagement of users at all cost, regardless of what holds their attention. This can result in amplifying the false over the true, the extreme over the considered, and the harmful over the benign. The human cost can be counted in mass murders in Myanmar, intensive care beds full of unvaccinated Covid-19 patients, insurrection at the US Capitol, and teenagers sent down rabbit holes of content promoting self-harm, eating disorders and suicide. As we have learned, we do not just mean teenagers—there are others involved in that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others have reminded us, too many children have suffered from infractions of this type. I pay tribute, again, to Ian Russell—who is still with us—for his campaign and for his extraordinary willingness to share his story. We all owe him a great debt.

These points, already made in other speeches, are important; they are at the heart of what this is about. This is about finding a way of organising what we all value, want and need, in a way that will allow us to get the benefits from it without paying the price that we already are. This debate, in the best traditions of this House, has brought a lot of views to bear on this, but, as I have tried to explain, it seems to me that a lot of them are very similar. There are differences and one or two outliers, but the points made broadly point in one direction: that the Bill is nearly there. It needs a little work and a bit of polishing and it will get over the finishing line.

The Bill needs to be in its best shape—there is no doubt about that—but we could identify alongside it the other issues that we will need to return to in future. We should not worry about that; I think we have all agreed that there will be other opportunities to do so. As we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Black, and others, there are other elements that also need to go ahead, and we should be thinking harder about them—the DMU and the need for competition in this whole area. As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, gave a very good summary of all the issues; I will not run through them again because it was exactly what I would have said myself.

We are in a very strange situation. There is no political divide and we all want the same things: we want the Bill improved and we want to see it pass as soon as possible. I am assuming that the Government will work with us on that—that is an assumption, because that is not the normal way it goes. I am assuming also that they recognise that there are one or two quite sensible compromises to be made—again, that is not a given, but I am getting a few nods that suggest that it might be the case. From this side, I cannot think of any issue that I have heard today, or in any of the discussions we have had recently about this Bill—and they have gone on for a number of years—that we would push to ping-pong. That is very unusual.

I suggest that we try to work together on getting the best Bill we can—while, of course, going through the various stages, because these things all eventually have to go back into the Bill—avoiding the war of attrition approach that so often bedevils the work we do here. Such an approach is important when there are big political issues at stake, but there are not, so let us use that and try to move forward. I would like to get together quite quickly and identify the policies we can move on together, and to take a route forward which will minimise the votes and the dissent and yet deliver the Bill, let us hope, by Report. That is a big ask; I do not think it has been done, except during wartime. But we are at war—at war with these people who are trying to run our lives, and we should try to get together and defeat them. It is unusual, but we live in unusual times. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Moved by
1: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Purposes of Act
(1) This Act has the following purposes—(a) to secure that regulated internet services comply with UK law and do not endanger public health or national security,(b) to provide a higher level of protection for children than for adults in respect of regulated internet services, (c) to identify and mitigate the risk of reasonably foreseeable harm arising from the operation and design of regulated internet services,(d) to recognise and respond to the disproportionate level of harms experienced in relation to regulated internet services by people on the basis of one or more protected characteristic,(e) to apply the overarching principle that regulated internet services should be safe by design,(f) to safeguard freedom of expression within the law and privacy in relation to regulated internet services, and(g) to secure that regulated internet services operate with transparency and accountability in respect of online safety.(2) The Secretary of State and OFCOM must have regard to the need to fulfil these purposes in exercising functions under this Act.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would implement a recommendation of the Joint Committee which carried out pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, setting out a range of purposes for the legislation and making clear that both the Secretary of State and OFCOM must have regard to those purposes when exercising their statutory functions.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I must say I am quite relieved that so many noble Lords have stayed; I thought that a single group with a single amendment on a sunny afternoon might have been enough to drive most noble Lords away. I take it as a thoroughly good- going sign that this will be a useful debate for us to have in Committee. I am privileged, and it is a great honour, to open this Committee stage with Amendment 1— at last.

Amendment 1 is in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Gilbert of Panteg. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, has let me know that he would have liked to have been present today and had intended to speak but, unfortunately, he has a hospital appointment. As noble Lords will be aware, he was recently a distinguished chair of your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee and would, I think, have had a lot to say about some of the issues that we are going to discuss this afternoon. I had the pleasure of working with him there, and he has kindly agreed that I can mention a couple of the points that he would have liked to make had he been present; I will be delighted to do so.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness and noble Lords for signing this amendment; that highlights the all-party support for ensuring that the Bill will achieve the high hopes that we all have for it. It also points to the fact that all the signatories were members of the Joint Committee of both Houses which undertook comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill 18 months ago—a process that I thoroughly endorse and count as one of the highlights of my time in your Lordships’ House.

I observe in passing that this amendment, based as it is on a recommendation from that Joint Committee, represents one of the few recommendations not yet implemented in the Bill before us today—just saying, Minister. I got that phrase from my kids; I am not quite sure what it means but they use it a lot, so I think it must have some commonality.

This amendment is intended to be declaratory, although it is also what the Public Bill Office—it has done a great job for us, we should all say—says is purposive. I had to look that one up, I confess; I discovered that it means “having or tending to fulfil a conscious purpose or design”. So this is a purposive amendment—indeed, it does what it says on the tin.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, would have said had he been present, the Bill is very difficult to understand, in part because of its innate complexity and in part because it has been revised so often. A simple statement of its purpose will help us all. I agree.

I stress at the outset that the amendment on its own does not seek to add anything to the considerable detail already in the Bill. However, it does five important things. It says up front what the Government are trying to achieve with this legislation and highlights what those companies within the scope of the Bill will need to bear in mind when they prepare for the new regime. It makes it clear that the new regime is centred on ensuring that the duties of care are placed on the companies that are in scope

“to identify and mitigate the risk of reasonably foreseeable harm arising from the operation and design of”

their services. It calls for “transparency and accountability” from all concerned in respect of online safety.

Had he been present, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, would have added that the amendment also sets out a few important principles that Ministers claim are fundamental to the way in which the Bill works but are absent from the detailed provisions when one comes to read them—such as, for example, that this Bill is about systems, not content. We will have to keep reminding ourselves of those words as we go through the Bill: it is about the systems that deliver the content but not the content itself.

Finally, this amendment would send a clear message about the trust that we in Parliament are placing in our independent regulator, Ofcom. That is a very important point. The amendment leads with a requirement that regulated services comply with UK law and do not endanger public health or national security. National security and public health are of course topical issues, but even if we were not in the midst of a storm about USA national security leaks shared on a Minecraft Discord server, which is certainly a user-to-user service that is widely accessed in the United Kingdom, it is probably wise to stress early on how vital it is for leaks of this nature to be at the forefront of regulated companies’ approach to the Bill. Today’s warnings by a Cabinet Minister and former Secretary of State at DCMS about cybersecurity affecting our national infrastructure are relevant here—likewise for public health.

I will not go through the amendment line by line. I am sure that others will want to comment on how it is laid out, the order of it and other matters, which are relevant but do not capture what the amendment is trying to do. However, I will focus on one: the reference to regulated companies having to have regard to reasonably foreseeable harm, as outlined in proposed new subsection (1)(c). I regret that the term “reasonably foreseeable harms” is absent from the Bill, although of course it featured heavily in the preceding White Paper when Sir Jeremy Wright was Secretary of State. The dropping of the “legal but harmful” category raises the question of how Ofcom will future-proof the system. Now that a wide-ranging risk assessment is no longer required by Ofcom, it will be hard to see what harms are coming down the track that might harm children in the future when applied to them or indeed hobble the regime by undermining the ability to look forward with the full resources of Ofcom and the companies working in concert. There are amendments on this issue which we will come to later, including one tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford that may test this issue.

The Government confirmed in a Written Answer to me of 8 February that AI products in a user-to-user or search engine service would be covered by the Bill, but the sudden recent explosion of AI products is a very good example of why a more general sense of foreseeability of harms may be required, rather than simply relying, as I think we will have to, on a list of things that we currently know about.

Our Joint Committee report made clear that the inclusion of this overarching objectives amendment would help all of us to ensure that the Online Safety Bill will be easy to understand, not just for service providers but for the public. Its inclusion would mean that we would be able to get into the detail of the Bill with a much better understanding of what the Government are seeking. I see the flow, which the committee was very clear about—having clear objectives that lead into precise duties on the regulated providers, robust powers for the regulator to act when the platforms fail to meet those legal and regulatory requirements, and a continuing role for Parliament, which is something that we will come to in future debates.

The internet is a wonderful invention. The major online services have become central to how people around the world access news and information, do business, play games, and keep in touch with family and friends, and the internet is free to use. But is it free? These services are highly profitable businesses. Where does that money come from? It is a commercial model based on selling targeted advertising. User data—our data—is collected and used to train algorithms to maximise engagement and users’ attention. The length of time and the frequency with which users engage on the platforms increase their value. More spent online means that more advertising reaches users, which leads to more revenue for the companies. It is a vicious circle.

However, we are where we are. Actively seeking to increase engagement through personalisation has the power to create more harmful user experiences for vulnerable people and children, who are more likely to see content which will increase their vulnerabilities or do them harm. The more that people interact with conspiracy theories, for example, the more of them they will see. The grouping together of users with similar interests can create environments which normalise hate speech and extremism. Design features that favour the spread of information over safety facilitate the targeting and amplification of abuse, as we have seen.

There is no doubt that this Online Safety Bill is a key step forward for our citizens and consumers. I have made it absolutely clear that I support the Government in their Bill and that we will do what we can to make sure that it reaches the statute book as quickly as possible. It is also important to remember that it is showing other democratic societies that want to bring accountability and responsibility to the internet how it can be done, and I believe that this Bill will do it very well. However, it will only be effective if online services are held accountable for the design and operation of their systems by the regulations introduced by this Bill—and of course its successors, because this is the first of a number of Bills which we know we will be seeing in this area. There are very important points here about how we approach this, the need to maintain the will of Parliament throughout these areas, and the appointment of an independent regulator rather than those who happen to reside in Silicon Valley.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, let me start by saying how saying how pleased I, too, am that we are now in Committee. I thank all noble Lords for giving up their time to attend the technical briefings that officials in my department and I have held since Second Reading and for the collaborative and constructive nature of their contributions in those discussions.

In particular, not least because today is his birthday, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for his tireless work on the Bill—from his involvement in its pre-legislative scrutiny to his recall to the Front Bench in order to see the job through. We are grateful for his diligence and, if I may say so, the constructive and collaborative way in which he has gone about it. He was right to pay tribute both to my noble friend Lord Gilbert of Panteg, who chaired the Joint Committee, and to the committee’s other members, including all the other signatories to this amendment. The Bill is a better one for their work, and I repeat my thanks to them for it. In that spirit, I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing forward this philosophical opening amendment. As noble Lords have said, it is a helpful place for us to start and refocus our thoughts as we begin our line-by-line scrutiny of this Bill.

Although I agree with the noble Lord’s broad description of his amendment’s objectives, I am happy to respond to the challenge that lies behind it and put the objectives of this important legislation clearly on the record at the outset of our scrutiny. The Online Safety Bill seeks to bring about a significant change in online safety. The main purposes of the Bill are: to give the highest levels of protection to children; to protect users of all ages from being exposed to illegal content; to ensure that companies’ approach focuses on proactive risk management and safety by design; to protect people who face disproportionate harm online including, for instance, because of their sex or their ethnicity or because they are disabled; to maintain robust protections for freedom of expression and privacy; and to ensure that services are transparent and accountable.

The Bill will require companies to take stringent measures to tackle illegal content and protect children, with the highest protections in the Bill devoted to protecting children; as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, my noble friend Lord Cormack and others have again reminded us today, that is paramount. Children’s safety is prioritised throughout this Bill. Not only will children be protected from illegal content through its illegal content duties but its child safety duties add an additional layer of protection so that children are protected from harmful or inappropriate content such as grooming, pornography and bullying. I look forward to contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others who will, I know, make sure that our debates are properly focused on that.

Through their duties of care, all platforms will be required proactively to identify and manage risk factors associated with their services in order to ensure both that users do not encounter illegal content and that children are protected from harmful content. To achieve this, they will need to design their services to reduce the risk of harmful content or activity occurring and take swift action if it does.

Regulated services will need to prioritise responding to online content and activity that present the highest risk of harm to users, including where this is linked to something classified as a protected characteristic under the terms of the Equality Act 2010. This will ensure that platforms protect users who are disproportionately affected by online abuse—for example, women and girls. When undertaking child safety and illegal content risk assessments, providers must consider whether certain people face a greater risk of harm online and ensure that those risks are addressed and mitigated.

The Bill will place duties relating to freedom of expression and privacy on both Ofcom and all in-scope companies. Those companies will have to consider and implement safeguards for freedom of expression when fulfilling their duties. Ofcom will need to carry out its new duties in a way that protects freedom of expression. The largest services will also have specific duties to protect democratic and journalistic content.

Ensuring that services are transparent about the risks on their services and the actions they are taking to address them is integral to this Bill. User-to-user services must set out in their terms of service how they are complying with their illegal and child safety duties. Search services must do the same in public statements. In addition, government amendments that we tabled yesterday will require the biggest platforms to publish summaries of their illegal and their child safety risk assessments, increasing transparency and accountability, and Ofcom will have a power to require information from companies to assess their compliance with providers’ duties.

Finally, the Bill will also increase transparency and accountability relating to platforms with the greatest influence over public discourse. They will be required to ensure that their terms of service are clear and properly enforced. Users will be able to hold platforms accountable if they fail to enforce those terms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, asked me to say which of the proposed new paragraphs (a) to (g), to be inserted by Amendment 1, are not the objectives of this Bill. Paragraph (a) sets out that the Bill must ensure that services

“do not endanger public health or national security”.

The Bill will certainly have a positive impact on national security, and a core objective of the Bill is to ensure that platforms are not used to facilitate terrorism. Ofcom will issue a stand-alone code on terrorism, setting out how companies can reduce the risk of their services being used to facilitate terrorist offences, and remove such content swiftly if it appears. Companies will also need to tackle the new foreign interference offence as a priority offence. This will ensure that the Bill captures state-sponsored disinformation, which is of most concern—that is, attempts by foreign state actors to manipulate information to interfere in our society and undermine our democratic, political and legal processes.

The Bill will also have a positive impact on public health but I must respectfully say that that is not a primary objective of the legislation. In circumstances where there is a significant threat to public health, the Bill already provides powers for the Secretary of State both to require Ofcom to prioritise specified objectives when carrying out its media literacy activity and to require companies to report on the action they are taking to address the threat. Although the Bill may lead to additional improvements—I am sure that we all want to see them—for instance, by increasing transparency about platforms’ terms of service relating to public health issues, making this a primary objective on a par with the others mentioned in the noble Lord’s amendment risks making the Bill much broader and more unmanageable. It is also extremely challenging to prohibit such content, where it is viewed by adults, without inadvertently capturing useful health advice or legitimate debate and undermining the fundamental objective of protecting freedom of expression online—a point to which I am sure we will return.

The noble Lord’s amendment therefore reiterates many objectives that are interwoven throughout the legislation. I am happy to say again on the record that I agree with the general aims it proposes, but I must say that accepting it would be more difficult than the noble Lord and others who have spoken to it have set out. Accepting this amendment, or one like it, would create legal uncertainty. I have discussed with the officials sitting in the Box—the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, rightly paid tribute to them—the ways in which such a purposive statement, as the noble Lord suggests, could be made; we discussed it between Second Reading and now.

I appreciate the care and thought with which the noble Lord has gone about this—mindful of international good practice in legislation and through discussion with the Public Bill Office and others, to whom he rightly paid tribute—but any deviation from the substantive provisions of the Bill and the injection of new terminology risk creating uncertainty about the proper interpretation and application of those provisions. We have heard that again today; for example, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said that she was not clear what the meaning of certain words may be while my noble friend Lady Stowell made a plea for simplicity in legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, also gave an eloquent exposition of the lexicographical befuddlement that can ensue when new words are added. All pointed to some confusion; indeed, there have been areas of disagreement even in what I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, thinks was a very consensual summary of the purposes of the Bill.

That legal uncertainty could provide the basis for an increased number of judicial reviews or challenges to the decisions taken under the Bill and its framework, creating significant obstacles to the swift and effective implementation of the new regulatory framework, which I know is not something that he or other noble Lords would want. As noble Lords have noted, this is a complicated Bill, but adding further statements and new terminology to it, for however laudable a reason, risks adding to that complication, which can only benefit those with, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, put it, the deepest pockets.

However, lest he think that I and the Government have not listened to his pleas or those of the Joint Committee, I highlight, as my noble friend Lady Stowell did, that the Joint Committee’s original recommendation was that these objectives

“should be for Ofcom”.

The Government took that up in Schedule 4 to the Bill, and in Clause 82(4), which set out objectives for the codes and for Ofcom respectively. At Clause 82(4) the noble Lord will see the reference to

“the risk of harm to citizens presented by content on regulated services”

and

“the need for a higher level of protection for children than for adults”.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that it is not impossible to add purposive statements to Bills and nor is it unprecedented. I echo her tribute to the officials and lawyers in government who have worked on this Bill and given considerable thought to it. She has had the benefit of sharing their experience and the difficulties of writing tightly worded legislation. In different moments of her career, she has also had the benefit of picking at the loose threads in legislation and poking at the holes in it. That is the purpose of lawyers who question the thoroughness with which we have all done our work. I will not call them “pesky lawyers”, as she did—but I did hear her say it. I understand the point that she was making in anticipation but reassure her that she has not pre-empted the points that I was going to make.

To the layperson, legislation is difficult to understand, which is why we publish Explanatory Notes, on which the noble Baroness and others may have had experience of working before. I encourage noble Lords, not just today but as we go through our deliberations, to consult those as well. I hope that noble Lords will agree that they are more easily understood, but if they do not do what they say and provide explanation, I will be very willing to listen to their thoughts on it.

So, while I am not going to give the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the birthday present of accepting his amendment, I hope that the clear statement that I gave at the outset from this Dispatch Box, which is purposive as well, about the objectives of the Bill, and my outline of how it tries to achieve them, is a sufficient public statement of our intent, and that it achieves what I hope he was intending to get on the record today. I invite him to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Well, my Lords, it has been a very good debate, and we should be grateful for that. In some senses, I should bank that; we have got ourselves off to a good start for the subsequent debates and discussions that we will have on the nearly 310 amendments that we must get through before the end of the process that we have set out on.

However, let us pause for a second. I very much appreciated the response, not least because it was very sharp and very focused on the amendment. It would have been tempting to go wider and wider, and I am sure that the Minister had that in mind at some point, but he has not done that. The first substantial point that he made seemed to be a one-pager about what this Bill is about. Suitably edited and brought down to manageable size, it would fit quite well into the Bill. I am therefore a bit puzzled as to why he cannot make the jump, intellectually or otherwise, from having that written for him and presumably working on it late at night with candles so that it was perfect—because it was pretty good; I will read it very carefully in Hansard, but it seemed to say everything that I wanted to say and covered most of the points that everybody else thought of to say, in a way that would provide clarity for those seeking it.

The issue we are left with was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, in her very perceptive remarks. Have we got this pointing in the right direction? We should think about it as a way for the Government to get out of this slightly ridiculous shorthand of the safest place to be online, to a statement to themselves about what they are trying to do, rather than an instruction to Ofcom—because that is where it gets difficult and causes problems with the later stages. This is really Parliament and government agreeing to say this, in print, rather than just through reading Hansard. That then reaches back to where my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti is, and it helps the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, with her very good point, that this will not work if people do not even bother to get through the first page.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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The Minister just said something that was material to this debate. He said that Ofcom has existing powers to prevent app stores from providing material that would have caused problems for the services to which they allow access. Can he confirm that?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Perhaps the noble Lord could clarify his question; I was too busy finishing my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Knight.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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It is a continuation of the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, and it seems that it will go part of the way towards resolving the differences that remain between the Minister and the noble Baroness, which I hope can be bridged. Let me put it this way: is it the case that Ofcom either now has powers or will have powers, as a result of the Bill, to require app stores to stop supplying children with material that is deemed in breach of the law? That may be the basis for understanding how you can get through this. Is that right?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Services already have to comply with their duties to keep children safe. If they do not comply, Ofcom has powers of enforcement set out, which require app stores to remove applications that are harmful to children. We think this already addresses the point, but I am happy to continue discussing it offline with the noble Lord, my noble friend and others who want to explore how. As I say, we think this is already covered. A more general duty here would risk distracting from Ofcom’s existing priorities.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, this has been a very strange debate. It has been the tail end of the last session and a trailer for a much bigger debate coming down the track. It was very odd.

We do not want to see everything behind an age-gating barrier, so I agree with my noble friend. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, reminded us, it is all about the risk profile, and that then leads to the kind of risk assessment that a platform is going to be required to carry out. There is a logic to the way that the Bill is going to operate.

When you look at Clause 11(3), you see that it is not disproportionate. It deals with “primary priority content”. This is not specified in the Bill but it is self-harm and pornography—major content that needs age-gating. Of course we need to have the principles for age assurance inserted into the Bill as well, and of course it will be subject to debate as we go forward.

There is technology to carry out age verification which is far more sophisticated than it ever was, so I very much look forward to that debate. We started that process in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. I was described as an internet villain for believing in age verification. I have not changed my view, but the debate will be very interesting. As regards the tail-end of the previous debate, of course we are sympathetic on these Benches to the Wikipedia case. As we said on the last group, I very much hope that we will find a way, whether it is in Schedule 1 or in another way, of making sure that Wikipedia is not affected overly by this—maybe the risk profile that is drawn up by Ofcom will make sure that Wikipedia is not unduly impacted.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Like others, I had prepared quite extensive notes to respond to what I thought the noble Lord was going to say about his amendments in this group, and I have not been able to find anything left that I can use, so I am going to have to extemporise slightly. I think it is very helpful to have a little non-focused discussion about what we are about to talk about in terms of age, because there is a snare and a delusion in quite a lot of it. I was put in mind of that in the discussions on the Digital Economy Act, which of course precedes the Minister but is certainly still alive in our thinking: in fact, we were talking about it earlier today.

The problem I see is that we have to find a way of squaring two quite different approaches. One is to prevent those who should not be able to see material, because it is illegal for them to see it. The other is to find a way of ensuring that we do not end up with an age-gated internet, which I am grateful to find that we are all, I think, agreed about: that is very good to know.

Age is very tricky, as we have heard, and it is not the only consideration we have to bear in mind in wondering whether people should be able to gain access to areas of the internet which we know will be bad and difficult for them. That leads us, of course, to the question about legal but harmful, now resolved—or is it? We are going to have this debate about age assurance and what it is. What is age verification? How do they differ? How does it matter? Is 18 a fixed and final point at which we are going to say that childhood ends and adulthood begins, and therefore one is open for everything? It is exactly the point made earlier about how to care for those who should not be exposed to material which, although legal for them by a number called age, is not appropriate for them in any of the circumstances which, clinically, we might want to bring to bear.

I do not think we are going to resolve these issues today—I hope not. We are going to talk about them for ever, but at this stage I think we still need a bit of thinking outside a box which says that age is the answer to a lot of the problems we have. I do not think it is, but whether the Bill is going to carry that forward I have my doubts. How we get that to the next stage, I do not know, but I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on it.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I agree that this has been a rather unfortunate grouping and has led to a slightly strange debate. I apologise if it is the result of advice given to my noble friend. I know there has been some degrouping as well, which has led to slightly odd combinations today. However, as promised, I shall say a bit more about Wikipedia in relation to my noble friend’s Amendments 10 and 11.

The effect of these amendments would be that moderation actions carried out by users—in other words, community moderation of user-to-user and search services —would not be in scope of the Bill. The Government support the use of effective user or community moderation by services where this is appropriate for the service in question. As I said on the previous group, as demonstrated by services such as Wikipedia, this can be a valuable and effective means of moderating content and sharing information. That is why the Bill does not impose a one-size-fits-all requirement on services, but instead allows services to adopt their own approaches to compliance, so long as these are effective. The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, dwelt on this. I should be clear that duties will not be imposed on individual community moderators; the duties are on platforms to tackle illegal content and protect children. Platforms can achieve this through, among other things, centralised or community moderation. Ultimately, however, it is they who are responsible for ensuring compliance and it is platforms, not community moderators, who will face enforcement action if they fail to do so.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken on the Bill in Committee. I know noble Lords are keen to move on and get through the groups as quickly as possible, but I hope they will forgive me if I say that I will speak only about twice on the Bill, and this is one of the groups that I want to speak to. I will try not to make your Lordships impatient.

I should tell the Committee a little about where I am coming from. I was very geeky as a kid. I learned to program and code. I did engineering at university and coded there. My master’s degree in the late 1980s was about technology and policy, so I have been interested in technology policy since then, having followed it through in my professional life. In 1996, I wrote a book on EU telecoms—it sold so well that no one has ever heard of it. One thing I said in that book, which though not an original thought is pertinent today, is that the regulation will always be behind the technology. We will always play catch-up, and we must be concerned about that.

Interestingly, when you look at studies of technology adoption—pioneers, early adopters and then the rest of the population—quite often you see that the adult industry is at the leading edge, such as with cable TV, satellite TV, video cassettes, online conferencing, et cetera. I assure your Lordships that I have not done too much primary research into this, but it is an issue that we ought to be aware of.

I will not speak often in this debate, because there are many issues that I do not want to disagree on. For example, I have already had a conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and we all agree that we need to protect children. We also know that we need to protect vulnerable adults; there is no disagreement on that. However, in these discussions there will be inevitable trade-offs between security and safety and freedom. It is right to have these conversations to ensure that we get the balance right, with the wisdom of noble Lords. Sacrifices will be made on either side of the debate, and we should be very careful as we navigate this.

I am worried about some of the consequences for freedom of expression. When I was head of a research think tank, one of the phenomena that I became interested in was that of unintended consequences. Well-meaning laws and measures have often led to unintended consequences. Some people call it a law of unintended consequences, and some call it a principle, and we should be careful about this. The other issue is subjectivity of harms. Given that we have taken “legal but harmful” out and there are amendments to the Bill to tackle harms, there will be a debate on the subjectivity of harms.

One reason I wanted to speak on this group is that some of the amendments tabled by noble Lords—too many to mention—deal with technology notices and ensuring that we are consistent between the offline and online worlds, particularly regarding the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. I welcome and support those amendments.

We also have to be aware that people will find a way around it, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said. When I was looking at terrorism and technology, one of the issues that people raised with me was not to forget that one way around it was to create an email account and store stuff in a draft folder. You could then share the username and password with others who could then access that data, those pictures or those instructions in a draft folder. The noble Lord, Lord Allan, has gone some way to addressing that issue.

The other issue that we have to be clear about is how the tech sector can do more. It was interesting when my noble friend Lady Stowell organised a meeting with Meta, which was challenged particularly on having access to information and pictures from coroners. It was very interesting when Meta told us what it could access: it does not know what is in the messages, but there are things that it can access, or advise people to access, on the user’s phone or at the other end. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has had the conversation with Meta, but it would be helpful and important to find some common ground there, and to probe and push Meta and others to make sure that they share that information more quickly, so we do not have to wait five years to get it via the coroner or whatever. We ought to push that as much as possible.

I want to talk in particular about unintended consequences, particularly around end-to-end encryption. Even if you do not believe the big businesses and think that they are crying wolf when they say that they will quit the UK—although I believe that there is a threat of that, particularly when we continually want the UK to be a global hub for technology and innovation and so cannot afford for companies such as Meta, Signal and others to leave—you should listen to the journalists who are working with people, quite often dissidents, in many countries, and rely on encrypted communications to communicate with them.

The other risk we should be aware of is that it is very difficult to keep technology to a few people. In my academic career, I also looked at technology transfer, both intentional and unintentional. We should look at the intelligence services and some of the innovations that happened: for example, when Concorde was designed, it was not very long after that the Soviets got their hands on that equipment. Just as there used to be a chap called Bob in the exchange who could share information, there is always a weak spot in chains: the humans. Lots of humans have a price and can be bought, or they can be threatened, and things can be shared. The unintended consequence I am worried about is that this technology will get into the hands of totalitarian regimes. At the same time, it means people over here who are really trying desperately to help dissidents and others speak up for freedom in other countries will be unable to support them. We should be very careful and think about unintended consequences. For that reason, I support this group of amendments.

I really am looking forward to the responses from the Minister. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that he was a Minister for three years on data protection; I was a Minister in this department for one month. I was so pleased that I had my dream job, as Minister for Civil Society and Heritage, and so proud of my party and this country because we had elected the first Asian Prime Minister; then, six days later, I got sacked. So, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

In this particular case, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken up in this debate. I do not want to repeat any other points but just wanted to add that. I will not speak often, but I want to say that it is really critical that, when we look at this trade-off between security, safety and freedom, we get it right. One way of doing that is to make sure that, on technology notices and RIPA, we are consistent between the online and offline worlds.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a very good debate indeed. When I first saw this grouping, my heart sank: the idea that we should be able to encompass all that within the space of just over an hour seemed a bit beyond all of us, however skilled and experienced we were, and whatever background we were able to bring to the debate today. I agree with both noble Lords who observed that we have an expertise around here that is very unusual and extremely helpful in trying to drill down into some of these issues.

The good thing that has come out from this debate, which was summed up very well by the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, is that we are now beginning to address some of the underlying currents that the Bill as a boat is resting on—and the boat is a bit shaky. We have a very strong technological bias, and we are grateful for the masterclass from the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, on what is actually going on in the world that we are trying to legislate for. It leaves me absolutely terrified that we are in a situation where we appear to be trying to future-proof, possibly in the wrong direction. We should be very careful about that. We will want to reflect on the point he made on where the technology is driving this particular aspect of our social media and search engine operations.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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All the phrases used in the Bill are subject to the usual scrutiny through the judicial process—that is why we debate them now and think about their implications—but of course they can, and I am sure will, be tested in the usual legal ways. Once a company has developed a new technology that meets minimum standards of accuracy, Ofcom may require its use but not before considering matters including the impact on user privacy, as I have set out. The Bill does not specify which tools are likely to be required, as we cannot pre-empt Ofcom’s evidence-based and case-by-case assessment.

Amendment 285 intends to clarify that social media platforms will not be required to undertake general monitoring of the activity of their users. I agree that the protection of privacy is of utmost importance. I want to reassure noble Lords, in particular my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, who asked about it, that the Bill does not require general monitoring of all content. The clear and strong safeguards for privacy will ensure that users’ rights are protected.

Setting out clear and specific safeguards will be more effective in protecting users’ privacy than adopting the approach set out in Amendment 285. Ofcom must consider a number of matters, including privacy, before it can require the use of proactive technology. The government amendments in this group, Amendments 290A to 290G, further clarify that technology which identifies words, phrases or images that indicate harm is subject to all of these restrictions. General monitoring is not a clearly defined concept—a point made just now by my noble friend Lord Kamall. It is used in EU law but is not defined clearly in that, and it is not a concept in UK law. This lack of clarity could create uncertainty that some technology companies might attempt to exploit in order to avoid taking necessary and proportionate steps to protect their users. That is why we resist Amendment 285.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I understand the point the Minister is making, but it is absolutely crystal clear that, whatever phrase is used, the sensibility is quite clear that the Government are saying on record, at the Dispatch Box, that the Bill can in no way be read as requiring anybody to provide a view into private messaging or encrypted messaging unless there is good legal cause to suspect criminality. That is a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, made very clearly. One may not like the phrasing used in other legislatures, but could we find a form of words that will make it clear that those who are operating in this legal territory are absolutely certain about where they stand on that?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I want to give clear reassurance that the Bill does not require general monitoring of all content. We have clear and strong safeguards for privacy in the Bill to ensure that users’ rights are protected. I set out the concerns about use of the phrase “general monitoring”. I hope that provides clarity, but I may have missed the noble Lord’s point. The brief answer to the question I think he was asking is yes.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Let the record stand clear: yes. It was the slight equivocation around how the Minister approached and left that point that I was worried about, and that people might seek to use that later. Words from the Dispatch Box are never absolute and they are never meant to be, but the fact that they have been said is important. I am sure that everybody understands that point, and the Minister did say “yes” to my question.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I did, and I am happy to say it again: yes.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The points the noble Baroness has just made bring me neatly to what I was about to say in relation to the question raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. But first, I would say that Ofcom as a public body is subject to public law principles already, so those apply in this case.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked about virtual private networks and the risk of displacing people on to VPNs or other similar alternatives. That is a point worth noting, not just in this group but as we consider all these amendments, particularly when we talk later on about age verification, pornography and so on. Services will need to think about how safety measures could be circumvented and take steps to prevent that, because they need to mitigate risk effectively. There may also be a role in enforcement action, too; Ofcom will be able to apply to the courts to require these services where appropriate to apply business disruption measures. We should certainly be mindful of the incentives for people to do that, and the example the noble Lord, Lord Knight, gave earlier is a useful lesson in the old adage “Caveat emptor” when looking at some of these providers.

I want to say a little bit about Amendments 205A and 290H in my name. Given the scale of child sexual abuse and exploitation that takes place online, and the reprehensible nature of these crimes, it is important that Ofcom has effective powers to require companies to tackle it. This brings me to these government amendments, which make small changes to the powers in Clause 110 to ensure that they are effective. I will focus particularly, in the first instance, on Amendment 290H, which ensures that Ofcom considers whether a service has features that allow content to be shared widely via another service when deciding whether content has been communicated publicly or privately, including for the purposes of issuing a notice. This addresses an issue highlighted by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall, and Professor Stuart Macdonald in a recent paper. The separate, technical amendment, Amendment 205A, clarifies that Clause 110(7) refers only to a notice on a user-to-user service.

Amendment 190 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seeks to introduce a new privacy duty on Ofcom when considering whether to use any of its powers. The extensive privacy safeguards that I have already set out, along with Ofcom’s human rights obligations, would make this amendment unnecessary. Ofcom must also explicitly consult persons whom it considers to have expertise in the enforcement of the criminal law and the protection of national security, which is relevant to online safety matters in the course of preparing its draft codes. This may include the integrity and security of internet services where relevant.

Amendments 202 and 206, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and Amendments 207, 208, 244, 246, 247, 248, 249 and 250 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, all seek to deliver privacy safeguards to notices issued under Clause 110 through additional review and appeals processes. There are already strong safeguards concerning this power. As part of the warning notice process, companies will be able to make representations to Ofcom which it is bound to consider before issuing a notice. Ofcom must also review any notice before the end of the period for which it has effect.

Amendment 202 proposes mirroring the safeguards of the investigatory powers Act when issuing notices to encrypted messaging services under this power. First, this would be inappropriate, because the powers in the investigatory powers Act serve different purposes from those in this Bill. The different legal safeguards in the investigatory powers Act reflect the potential intrusion by the state into an individual’s private communications; that is not the case with this Bill, which does not grant investigatory powers to state bodies, such as the ability to intercept private communications. Secondly, making a reference to encryption would be—

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Is that right? I do not need a yes or no answer. It was rhetorical; I am just trying to frame the right question. The Minister is making a very strong point about the difference between RIPA requirements and those that might be brought in under this Bill. But it does not really get to the bottom of the questions we were asking. In this situation, whatever the exact analogy between the two systems is, it is clear that Ofcom is marking its own homework—which is fair enough, as there are representations, but it is not getting external advice or seeking judicial approval.

The Minister’s point was that that was okay because it was private companies involved. But we are saying here that these would be criminal offences taking place and therefore there is bound to be interest from the police and other agencies, including anti-terrorism agencies. It is clearly similar to the RIPA arrangements, so he could he just revisit that?

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Moved by
16: Clause 8, page 7, line 16, after “governance,” insert “terms of service,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes clear that “design and operation of a service” includes its terms of service.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, this group of amendments concerns terms of service. All the amendments either have the phrase “terms of service” in them or imply that we wish to see more use of the phrase in the Bill, and seek to try to tidy up some of the other bits around that which have crept into the Bill.

Why are we doing that? Rather late in the day, terms of service has suddenly become a key fulcrum, under which much of the operations of the activity relating to people’s usage of social media and service functions on the internet will be expressed in relation to how they view the material coming to them. With the loss of the adult “legal but harmful” provisions, we also lost quite a considerable amount of what would have been primary legislation, which no doubt would have been backed up by codes of practice. The situation we are left with, and which we need to look at very closely, is the triple shield at the heart of the new obligations on companies, and, in particular, on their terms of service. That is set out primarily in Clauses 64, 65, 66 and 67, and is a subject to which my amendments largely refer.

Users of the services would be more confident that the Government have got their focus on terms of service right, if they actually said what should be said on the tin, as the expression goes. If it is the case that something in a terms of service was so written and implemented so that material which should be taken down was indeed taken down, these would become reliable methods of judging whether or not the service is the one people want to have, and the free market would be seen to be working to empower people to make their own decisions about what level of risk they can assume by using a service. That is a major change from the way the Bill was originally envisaged. Because this was done late, we have one or two of the matters to which I have referred already, which means that the amendments focus on changing what is currently in the Bill.

It is also true that the changes were not consulted upon; I do not recall there being any document from government about whether this was a good way forward. The changes were certainly not considered by the Joint Committee, of which several of those present were members—we did not discuss it in the Joint Committee and made no recommendation on it. The level of scrutiny we have enjoyed on the Bill has been absent in this area. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford will speak shortly to amendments about terms of service, and we will be able to come back to it. I think it would have been appropriate had the earlier amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, been in this group because the issue was the terms of service, even though it had many other elements that were important and that we did discuss.

The main focus of my speech is that the Government have not managed to link this new idea of terms of service and the responsibilities that will flow from that to the rest of the Bill. It does not seem to fit into the overall architecture. For example, it is not a design feature, and does not seem to work through in that way. This is a largely self-contained series of clauses. We are trying to ask some of the world’s largest companies, on behalf of the people who use them, to do things on an almost contractual basis. Terms of service are not a contract that you sign up to, but you certainly click something—or occasionally click it, if you remember to—by which you consent to the company operating in a particular set of ways. In a sense, that is a contract, but is it really a contract? At the heart of that contract between companies and users is whether the terms of service are well captured in the way the Bill is organised. I think there are gaps.

The Bill does have something that we welcome and want to hold on to, which is that the process under which the risks are assessed and decisions taken about how companies operate and how Ofcom relates to those decisions is about the design and operation of the service—both the design and the operation, something that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is very keen to emphasise at all times. It all starts and ends with design, and the operation is a consequence of design choices. Other noble Baronesses have mentioned in the debate that small companies get it right and so, when they grow, can be confident that what they are doing is something that is worth doing. Design, and operating that design to make a service, is really important. Are terms of service part of that or are they different, and does it matter? It seems to me that they are downstream from the design: something can be designed and then have terms of service that were not really part of the original process. What is happening here?

My Amendments 16, 21, 66DA, 75 and 197 would ensure that the terms of service are included within the list of matters that constitute “design and operation” of the service at each point that it occurs. I have had to go right through the Bill to add it in certain areas—in a rather irritating way, I am sure, for the Bill team—because sometimes we find that what I think should be a term of service is actually described as something else, such as a “a publicly available statement”, whatever that is. It would be an advantage if we went through it again and defined terms of service and made sure that that was what we were talking about.

Amendments 70 to 72, 79 to 81 and 174 seek to help the Government and their officials with tidying up the drafting, which probably has not been scrutinised enough to pick up these issues. It may not matter, at the end of the day, but what is in the Bill is going to be law and we may as well try to get it right as best we can. I am sure the Minister will say we really do not need to worry about this because it is all about risks and outcomes, and if a company does not protect children or has illegal content, or the user-empowerment duties—the toggling—do not work, Ofcom will find a way of driving the company to sort it out. What does that mean in practice? Does it mean that Ofcom has a role in defining what terms of service are? It is not in the Bill and may not reach the Bill, but it is something that will be a bit of problem if we do not resolve what we mean by it, even if it is not by changing the legislation.

If the Minister were to disagree with my approach, it would be quite nice to have it said at the Dispatch Box so that we can look at that. The key question is: are terms of service an integral part of the design and operation of a service and, if so, can we extend the term to make sure that all aspects of the services people consume are covered by adequate and effective terms of service? There is probably going to be division in the way we approach this because, clearly, whether they are terms of service or have another name, the actual enforcement of illegal and children’s duties will be effected by Ofcom, irrespective of the wording of the Bill—I do not want to question that. However, there is obviously an overlap into questions about adults and others who are affected by the terms of service. If you cannot identify what the terms of service say in relation to something you might not wish to receive because the terms of service are imprecise, how on earth are you going to operate the services, the toggles and things, around it? If you look at that and accept there will be pressure within the market to get these terms of service right, there will be a lot of dialogue with Ofcom. I accept that all that will happen, but it would be good if the position of the terms of service was clarified in the Bill before it becomes law and that Ofcom’s powers in relation to those are clarified—do they or do they not have the chance to review terms of service if they turn out to be ineffective in practice? If that is the case, how are we going to see this work out in practice in terms of what people will be able to do about it, either through redress or by taking the issue to court? I beg to move.

Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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I support these amendments, which were set out wonderfully by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. I want to raise a point made on Tuesday when the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said that only 3% of people read terms of service and I said that 98% of people do not read them, so one of us is wrong, but I think the direction of travel is clear. She also used a very interesting phrase about prominence, and I want to use this opportunity to ask the Minister whether there is some lever whereby Ofcom can insist on prominence for certain sorts of material—a hierarchy of information, if you like—because these are really important pieces of information, buried in the wrong place so that even 2% or 3% of people may not find them.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for this short and focused debate, which has been helpful, and for the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Allan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I think we all share the same objective: ensuring that terms of service promote accountability and transparency, and empower users.

One of the Bill’s key objectives is to ensure that the terms of service of user-to-user platforms are suitable and effective. Under the Bill, companies will be required both to set out clearly how they will tackle illegal content and protect children and to ensure that their terms of service are properly enforced. The additional transparency and accountability duties on category 1 services will further ensure that users know what to expect on the largest platforms. This will put an end to these services arbitrarily removing content or, conversely, failing to remove content that they profess to prohibit.

The Bill will also ensure that search services are clear to their users about how they are complying with their adult and child safety duties under this new law. Given the very different way in which search services operate, however, this will be achieved through a publicly available statement rather than through terms of service. The two are meant distinctly.

Noble Lords are right to point to the question of intelligibility. It struck me that, if it takes 10 days to read terms of service, perhaps we should have a race during the 10 days allotted to this Committee stage to see which is quicker—but I take the point. The noble Lord, Lord Allan, is also right that the further requirements imposed through this Bill will only add to that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, asked a fair question about what “accessibility” means. The Bill requires all platforms’ terms of service for illegal content and child safety duties to be clear and accessible. Ofcom will provide guidance on what that means, including ensuring that they are suitably prominent. The same applies to terms of service for category 1 services relating to content moderation.

I will focus first on Amendments 16, 21, 66DA, 75 and 197, which seek to ensure that both Ofcom and platforms consider the risks associated with platforms’ terms of service with regard to the illegal content and child safety duties in the Bill. We do not think that these amendments are needed. User-to-user services will already be required to assess the risks regarding their terms of service for illegal content. Clause 8 requires companies to assess the “design and operation” of a service in relation to illegal content. As terms of service are integral to how a service operates, they would be covered by this provision. Similarly, Clause 10 sets out that companies likely to be accessed by children will be required to assess the “design and operation” of a service as part of their child risk assessments, which would include the extent to which their terms of service may reduce or increase the risk of harm to children.

In addition to those risk assessment duties, the safety duties will require companies to take proportionate measures effectively to manage and mitigate the risk of harm to people whom they have identified through risk assessments. This will include making changes to their terms of service, if appropriate. The Bill does not impose duties on search services relating to terms of service, as search services’ terms of service play a less important role in determining how users can engage on a platform. I will explain this point further when responding to specific amendments relating to search services but I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that search services will have comprehensive duties to understand and mitigate how the design and operation of their service affects risk.

Amendment 197 would require Ofcom to assess how platforms’ terms of service affect the risk of harm to people that the sector presents. While I agree that this is an important risk factor which Ofcom must consider, it is already provided for in Clause 89, which requires Ofcom to undertake an assessment of risk across regulated services. That requires Ofcom to consider which characteristics of regulated services give rise to harm. Given how integral terms of service are to how many technology companies function, Ofcom will necessarily consider the risk associated with terms of service when undertaking that risk assessment.

However, elevating terms of service above other systems and processes, as mentioned in Clause 89, would imply that Ofcom needs to take account of the risk of harm on the regulated service, more than it needs to do so for other safety-by-design systems and processes or for content moderation processes, for instance. That may not be suitable, particularly as the service delivery methods will inevitably change over time. Instead, Clause 89 has been written to give Ofcom scope to organise its risk assessment, risk register and risk profiles as it thinks suitable. That is appropriate, given that it is best placed to develop detailed knowledge of the matters in question as they evolve over time.

Amendments 70, 71, 72, 79, 80, 81, 174 and 302 seek to replace the Bill’s references to publicly available statements, in relation to search services, with terms of service. This would mean that search services would have to publish how they are complying with their illegal content and child protection duties in terms of service rather than in publicly available statements. I appreciate the spirit in which the noble Lord has tabled and introduced these amendments. However, they do not consider the very different ways in which search services operate.

User-to-user services’ terms of service fulfil a very specific purpose. They govern a user’s behaviour on the service and set rules on what a user is allowed to post and how they can interact with others. If a user breaks these terms, a service can block his or her access or remove his or her content. Under the status quo, users have very few mechanisms by which to hold user-to-user platforms accountable to these terms, meaning that users can arbitrarily see their content removed with few or no avenues for redress. Equally, a user may choose to use a service because its terms and conditions lead them to believe that certain types of content are prohibited while in practice the company does not enforce the relevant terms.

The Bill’s duties relating to user-to-user services’ terms of service seek to redress this imbalance. They will ensure that people know what to expect on a platform and enable them to hold platforms accountable. In contrast, users of search services do not create content or interact with other users. Users can search for anything without restriction from the search service provider, although a search term may not always return results. It is therefore not necessary to provide detailed information on what a user can and cannot do on a search service. The existing duties on such services will ensure that search engines are clear to users about how they are complying with their safety duties. The Bill will require search services to set out how they are fulfilling them, in publicly available statements. Their actions must meet the standards set by Ofcom. Using these statements will ensure that search services are as transparent as user-to-user services about how they are complying with their safety duties.

The noble Lord’s Amendment 174 also seeks to expand the transparency reporting requirements to cover the scope and application of the terms of service set out by search service providers. This too is unnecessary because, via Schedule 8, the Bill already ensures transparency about the scope and application of the provisions that search services must make publicly available. I hope that gives the noble Lord some reassurance that the concerns he has raised are already covered. With that, I invite him to withdraw Amendment 16.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that very detailed response, which I will have to read very carefully because it was quite complicated. That is the answer to my question. Terms of service will not be very easy to identify because to answer my questions he has had to pray in aid issues that Ofcom will necessarily have to assess—terms of services—to get at whether the companies are performing the duties that the Bill requires of them.

I will not go further on that. We know that there will be enough there to answer the main questions I had about this. I take the point about search being distinctively different in this area, although a tidy mind like mine likes to see all these things in one place and understand all the words. Every time I see “publicly available statement”, I do not know why but I think about people being hanged in public rather than a term of service or a contract.

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Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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My Lords, I would like to mention one issue that I forgot to mention, and I think it would be more efficient to pose the question now to the Minister rather than interject when he is speaking.

On the Government’s Amendments 136A, 136B and 136C on the immigration offences, the point I want to make is that online services can be literal life-savers for people who are engaged in very dangerous journeys, including journeys across the Channel. I hope the Minister will be clear that the intention here is to require platforms to deal only with content, for example, from criminals who are offering trafficking services, and that there is no intention to require platforms somehow to withdraw services from the victims of those traffickers when they are using those services in the interest of saving their own lives or seeking advice that is essential to preserving their own safety.

That would create—as I know he can imagine—real ethical and moral dilemmas, and we should not be giving any signal that we intend to require platforms to withdraw services from people who are in desperate need of help, whatever the circumstances.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, we seem to have done it again—a very long list of amendments in a rather ill-conceived group has generated a very interesting discussion. We are getting quite good at this, exchanging views across the table, across the Committee, even within the Benches—Members who perhaps have not often talked together are sharing ideas and thoughts, and that is a wonderful feeling.

I want to start with an apology. I think I may be the person who got the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, shopped by the former leader—once a leader, always a leader. What I thought I was being asked was whether the Committee would be interested in hearing the views of the noble Viscount who could not be present, and I was very keen, because when he does speak it is from a point of view that we do not often hear. I did not know that it was a transgression of the rules—but of course it is not, really, because we got round it. Nevertheless, I apologise for anything that might have upset the noble Baroness’s blood pressure—it did not stop her making a very good contribution later.

We have covered so much ground that I do not want to try and summarise it in one piece, because you cannot do that. The problem with the group as it stands is that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and myself must have some secret connection, because we managed to put down almost the same amendments. They were on issues that then got overtaken by the Minister, who finally got round to—I mean, who put down a nice series of amendments which exactly covered the points we made, so we can lose all those. But this did not stop the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford making some very good additional points which I think we all benefited from.

I welcome back the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, after her illness; she gave us a glimpse of what is to come from her and her colleagues, but I will leave the particular issue that she raised for the Minister to respond to. It raises an issue that I am not competent on, but it is a very important one—we need to get the right balance between what is causing the alarm and difficulty outside in relation to what is happening on the internet, and I think we all agree with her that we should not put any barrier in the way of dealing with that.

Indeed, that was the theme of a number of the points that have been raised on the question of what is or can constitute illegal content, and how we judge it. It is useful to hear again from the master about how you do it in practice. I cannot imagine being in a room of French lawyers and experts and retaining my sanity, let alone making decisions that affect the ability of people to carry on, but the noble Lord did it; he is still here and lives to tell the tale—bearded or otherwise.

The later amendments, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, are taking us round in a circle towards the process by which Ofcom will exercise the powers that it is going to get in this area. These are probably worth another debate on their own, and maybe it will come up in a different form, because—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, made this point as well—there is a problem in having an independent regulator that is also the go-to function for getting advice on how others have to make decisions that are theirs to rule on at the end if they go wrong. That is a complicated way of saying that we may be overloading Ofcom if we also expect it to provide a reservoir of advice on how you deal with the issues that the Bill puts firmly on the companies—I agree that this is a problem that we do not really have an answer to.

My amendments were largely overtaken by the Government’s amendments, but the main one I want to talk about was Amendment 272. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, is not here, because her expertise is in an area that I want to talk about, which is fraud—cyber fraud in particular—and how that is going to be brought into the Bill. The issue, which I think has been raised by Which?, but a number of other people have also written to us about it, is that the Bill in Clauses 170 and 171 is trying to establish how a platform should identify illegal content in relation to fraud—but it is quite prescriptive. In particular, it goes into some detail which I will leave for the Minister to respond to, but uniquely it sets out a specific way for gathering information to determine whether content is illegal in this area, although it may have applicability in other areas.

One of the points that have to be taken into account is whether the platform is using human moderators, automated systems or a combination of the two. I am not quite sure why that is there in the Bill; that is really the basis for the tabling of our amendments. Clearly, one would hope that the end result is whether or not illegality has taken place, not how that information has been gathered. If one must make concessions to the process of law because a judgment is made that, because it is automated, it is in some way not as valid as if it had been done by a human moderator, there seems to be a whole world there that we should not be going into. I certainly hope that that is not going to be the case if we are talking about illegality concerning children or other vulnerable people, but that is how the Bill reads at present; I wonder whether the Minister can comment on that.

There is a risk of consumers being harmed here. The figures on fraud in the United Kingdom are extraordinary; the fact that it is not the top priority for everybody, let alone the Government, is extraordinary. It is something like the equivalent of consumers being scammed at the rate of around £7.5 billion per year. A number of awful types of scamming have emerged only because of the internet and social media. They create huge problems of anxiety and emotional distress, with lots of medical care and other things tied in if you want to work out the total bill. So we have a real problem here that we need to settle. It is great that it is in the Bill, but it would be a pity if the movement towards trying to resolve it is in any way infringed on by there being imperfect instructions in the Bill. I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to respond to that; I would be happy to discuss it with him later, if that is possible.

As a whole, this is an interesting question as we move away from what a crime is towards how people judge how to deal with what they think is a crime but may not be. The noble Lord, Lord Allan, commented on how to do it in practice but one hopes that any initial problems will be overcome as we move forward and people become more experienced with this.

When the Joint Committee considered this issue, we spent a long time talking about why we were concerned about having certainty on the legal prescription in the Bill; that is why we were very much against the idea of “legal but harmful” because it seemed too subjective and too subject to difficulties. Out of that came another thought, which answers the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell: so much of this is about fine judgments on certain things that are there in stone and that you can work to but you then have to interpret them.

There is a role for Parliament here, I think; we will come on to this in later amendments but, if there is a debate to be had on this, let us not forget the points that have been made here today. If we are going to think again about Ofcom’s activity in practice, that is the sort of thing that either a Joint Committee or Select Committees of the two Houses could easily take on board as an issue that needs to be reflected on, with advice given to Parliament about how it might be taken forward. This might be the answer in the medium term.

In the short term, let us work to the Bill and make sure that it works. Let us learn from the experience but let us then take time out to reflect on it; that would be my recommendation but, obviously, that will be subject to the situation after we finish the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, as well as throwing up some interesting questions of law, this debate has provoked some interesting tongue-twisters. The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, offered a prize to the first person to pronounce the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz; I shall claim my prize in our debate on a later group when inviting him to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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A clean shirt, perhaps?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, that would be welcome.

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, over the last few hours I have praised us for having developed a style of discussion and debate that is certainly relatively new and not often seen in the House, where we have tried to reach out to each other and find common ground. That was not a problem in this last group of just over an hour; I think we are united around the themes that were so brilliantly introduced in a very concise and well-balanced speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who has been a leading and inspirational force behind this activity for so long.

Although different voices have come in at different times and asked questions that still need to be answered, I sense that we have reached a point in our thinking, if not in our actual debates, where we need a plan. I too reached this point; that was exactly the motivation I had in tabling Amendment 1, which was discussed on the first day. Fine as the Bill is—it is a very impressive piece of work in every way—it lacks what we need as a Parliament to convince others that we have understood the issues and have the answers to their questions about what this Government, or this country as a whole, are going to do about this tsunami of difference, which has arrived in the wake of the social media companies and search engines, in the way we do our business and live our lives these days. There is consensus, but it is slightly different to the consensus we had in earlier debates, where we were reassuring ourselves about the issues we were talking about but were not reaching out to the Government to change anything so much as being happy that we were speaking the same language and that they were in the same place as we are gradually coming to as a group, in a way.

Just before we came back in after the lunch break, I happened to talk to the noble Lord, Lord Grade, who is the chair of Ofcom and is listening to most of our debates and discussions when his other duties allow. I asked him what he thought about it, and he said that it was fascinating for him to recognise the level of expertise and knowledge that was growing up in the House, and that it would be a useful resource for Ofcom in the future. He was very impressed by the way in which everyone was engaging and not getting stuck in the niceties of the legislation, which he admitted he was experiencing himself. I say that softly; I do not want to embarrass him in any way because he is an honourable man. However, the point he makes is really important.

I say to the Minister that I do not think we are very far apart on this. He knows that, because we have discussed it at some length over the last six to eight weeks. What I think he should take away from this debate is that this is a point where a decision has to be taken about whether the Government are going to go with the consensus view being expressed here and put deliberately into the Bill a repetitive statement, but one that is clear and unambiguous, about the intention behind the Government’s reason for bringing forward the Bill and for us, the Opposition and other Members of this House, supporting it, which is that we want a safe internet for our children. The way we are going to do that is by having in place, up front and clearly in one place, the things that matter when the regulatory structure sits in place and has to deal with the world as it is, of companies with business plans and business models that are at variance with what we think should be happening and that we know are destroying the lives of people we love and the future of our country—our children—in a way that is quite unacceptable when you analyse it down to its last detail.

It is not a question of saying back to us across the Dispatch Box—I know he wants to but I hope he will not—“Everything that you have said is in the Bill; we don’t need to go down this route, we don’t need another piece of writing that says it all”. I want him to forget that and say that actually it will be worth it, because we will have written something very special for the world to look at and admire. It is probably not in its perfect form yet, but that is what the Government can do: take a rough and ready potential diamond, polish it, chamfer it, and bring it back and set it in a diadem we would all be proud to wear—Coronations excepted—so that we can say, “Look, we have done the dirty work here. We’ve been right down to the bottom and thought about it. We’ve looked at stuff that we never thought in our lives we would ever want to see and survived”.

I shake at some of the material we were shown that Molly Russell was looking at. But I never want to be in a situation where I will have to say to my children and grandchildren, “We had the chance to get this right and we relied on a wonderful piece of work called the Online Safety Act 2023; you will find it in there, but it is going to take you several weeks and a lot of mental harm and difficulty to understand what it means”.

So, let us make it right. Let us not just say “It’ll be alright on the night”. Let us have it there. It is almost right but, as my noble friend Lord Knight said, it needs to be patched back into what is already in the Bill. Somebody needs to look at it and say, “What, out of that, will work as a statement to the world that we care about our kids in a way that will really make a difference?” I warn the Minister that, although I said at Second Reading that I wanted to see this Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible, I will not accept a situation where we do not have more on this issue.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on this group and for the clarity with which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has concluded his remarks.

Amendments 20, 74, 93 and 123, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, would mean a significant revising of the Bill’s approach to content that is harmful to children. It would set a new schedule of harmful content and risk to children—the 4 Cs—on the face of the Bill and revise the criteria for user-to-user and search services carrying out child safety risk assessments.

I start by thanking the noble Baroness publicly—I have done so privately in our discussions—for her extensive engagement with the Government on these issues over recent weeks, along with my noble friends Lord Bethell and Lady Harding of Winscombe. I apologise that it has involved the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, missing her stop on the train. A previous discussion we had also very nearly delayed her mounting a horse, so I can tell your Lordships how she has devoted hours to this—as they all have over recent weeks. I would like to acknowledge their campaigning and the work of all organisations that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, listed at the start of her speech, as well as the families of people such as Olly Stephens and the many others that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford mentioned.

I also reassure your Lordships that, in developing this legislation, the Government carried out extensive research and engagement with a wide range of interested parties. That included reviewing international best practice. We want this to be world-leading legislation, including the four Cs framework on the online risks of harm to children. The Government share the objectives that all noble Lords have echoed in making sure that children are protected from harm online. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, for echoing the remarks I made earlier in Committee on this. I am glad we are on the same page, even if we are still looking at points of detail, as we should be.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, knows, it is the Government’s considered opinion that the Bill’s provisions already deliver these objectives. I know that she remains to be convinced, but I am grateful to her for our continuing discussions on that point, and for continuing to kick the tyres on this to make sure that this is indeed legislation of which we can be proud.

It is also clear that there is broad agreement across the House that the Bill should tackle harmful content to children such as content that promotes eating disorders, illegal behaviour such as grooming and risk factors for harm such as the method by which content is disseminated, and the frequency of alerts. I am pleased to be able to put on record that the Bill as drafted already does this in the Government’s opinion, and reflects the principles of the four Cs framework, covering each of those: content, conduct, contact and commercial or contract risks to children.

First, it is important to understand how the Bill defines content, because that question of definition has been a confusing factor in some of the discussions hitherto. When we talk in general terms about content, we mean the substance of a message. This has been the source of some confusion. The Bill defines “content”, for the purposes of this legislation, in Clause 207 extremely broadly as

“anything communicated by means of an internet service”.

Under this definition, in essence, all user communication and activity, including recommendations by an algorithm, interactions in the metaverse, live streams, and so on, is facilitated by “content”. So, for example, unwanted and inappropriate contact from an adult to a child would be treated by the Bill as content harm. The distinctions that the four Cs make between content, conduct and contact risks is therefore not necessary. For the purposes of the Bill, they are all content risks.

Secondly, I know that there have been concerns about whether the specific risks highlighted in the new schedule will be addressed by the Bill.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I do not think so, but I will certainly look at it again, and I am very happy to speak to the noble Lord as I do. My point is that it would not be workable or proportionate for a provider to prevent or protect all children from encountering every single instance of the sort of content that I have just outlined, which would be the effect of these amendments. I will happily discuss that with the noble Lord and others between now and Report.

Amendment 27, by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, seeks to add a duty to prevent children encountering targeted paid-for advertising. As he knows, the Bill has been designed to tackle harm facilitated through user-generated content. Some advertising, including paid-for posts by influencers, will therefore fall under the scope of the Bill. Companies will need to ensure that systems for targeting such advertising content to children, such as the use of algorithms, protect them from harmful material. Fully addressing the challenges of paid-for advertising is a wider task than is possible through the Bill alone. The Bill is designed to reduce harm on services which host user-generated content, whereas online advertising poses a different set of problems, with different actors. The Government are taking forward work in this area through the online advertising programme, which will consider the full range of actors and sector-appropriate solutions to those problems.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I understand the Minister’s response, and I accept that there is a parallel stream of work that may well address this. However, we have been waiting for the report from the group that has been looking at that for some time. Rumours—which I never listen to—say that it has been ready for some time. Can the Minister give us a timescale?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I cannot give a firm timescale today but I will seek what further information I can provide in writing. I have not seen it yet, but I know that the work continues.

Amendments 28 and 82, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, seek to remove the size and capacity of a service provider as a relevant factor when determining what is proportionate for services in meeting their child safety duties. This provision is important to ensure that the requirements in the child safety duties are appropriately tailored to the size of the provider. The Bill regulates a large number of service providers, which range from some of the biggest companies in the world to small voluntary organisations. This provision recognises that what it is proportionate to require of providers at either end of that scale will be different.

Removing this provision would risk setting a lowest common denominator. For instance, a large multinational company could argue that it is required only to take the same steps to comply as a smaller provider.

Amendment 32A from the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, would require services to have regard to the potential use of virtual private networks and similar tools to circumvent age-restriction measures. He raised the use of VPNs earlier in this Committee when we considered privacy and encryption. As outlined then, service providers are already required to think about how safety measures could be circumvented and take steps to prevent that. This is set out clearly in the children’s risk assessment and safety duties. Under the duty at Clause 10(6)(f), all services must consider the different ways in which the service is used and the impact of such use on the level of risk. The use of VPNs is one factor that could affect risk levels. Service providers must ensure that they are effectively mitigating and managing risks that they identify, as set out in Clause 11(2). The noble Lord is correct in his interpretation of the Bill vis-à-vis VPNs.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We will come to talk about algorithms and their risks later on. There is an important balance to strike here that we have debated, rightly, in this group. I remind noble Lords that there are a range of measures that providers can put in place—

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Because of the importance of that point in relation to what the Minister is about to say, we should be clear about this point: is he ruling out the ability to prioritise the needs and requirements of those who are effectively unable to take the decisions themselves in favour of a broader consideration of freedom of expression? It would be helpful for the future of this debate to be clear on that point.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We will come in a moment to the provisions that are in the Bill to make sure that decisions can be taken by adults, including vulnerable adults, easily and clearly. If the noble Lord will allow, I will cover that point.

I was in the middle of reminding noble Lords that there are a range of measures that providers can put in place under these duties, some of which might have an impact on a user’s experience if they were required to be switched on by default. That may include, for example, restricting a user’s news feed to content from connected users, adding to the echo chamber and silos of social media, which I know many noble Lords would join me in decrying. We think it is right that that decision is for individual users to make.

The Bill sets out that the user empowerment content tools must be offered to all adult users and must be easy to access—to go the point raised just now as well as by my noble friend Lady Harding, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and, as noble Lords were right to remind us, pushed by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who I am pleased to say I have been able to have discussions with separately from this Committee.

Providers will also be required to have clear and accessible terms of service about what tools are offered on their service and how users might take advantage of them. Ofcom will be able to require category 1 services to report on user empowerment tools in use through transparency reports. Ofcom is also bound by the Communications Act 2003 and the public sector equality duty, so it will need to take into account the ways that people with certain characteristics, including people with disabilities, may be affected when performing its duties, such as writing the codes of practice for the user empowerment duties.

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Several times in the Bill—but this is a clear example—the drafters have chosen to impose a different sequence of words from that which exists in statute. The obvious one here is the Equality Act, which we have touched on before. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made a number of serious points about that. Why have the Government chosen to list, separately and distinctively, the characteristics which we have also heard, through a different route, the regulator will be required to uphold in respect of the statute, while the companies will be looking to the text of the Bill, when enacted? Is that not just going to cause chaos?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The discrepancy comes from the point we touched on earlier. Ofcom, as a public body, is subject to the public sector equality duty and therefore the list set out in the Equality Act 2010. The list at Clause 12(11) relates to content which is abusive, and is therefore for providers to look at. While the Equality Act has established an understanding of characteristics which should be given special protection in law, it is not necessarily desirable to transpose those across. They too are susceptible to the point made by my noble friend Lady Buscombe about lists set out in statute. If I remember rightly, the Equality Act was part of a wash-up at the end of that Parliament, and whether Parliament debated that Bill as thoroughly as it is debating this one is a moot point.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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The noble Lord made that point before, and I was going to pick him up on it. It really is not right to classify our legislation by whether it came through in a short or long period. We are spending an awfully long time on this but that is not going to make it any better. I was involved in the Equality Act, and I have the scars on my back to prove it. It is jolly good legislation and has stood the test of time. I do not think the point is answered properly by simply saying that this is a better way of doing it. The Minister said that Clause 12(11) was about abuse targets, but Clause 12(12) is about “hatred against people” and Clause 12(13) is a series of explanatory points. These provisions are all grist to the lawyers. They are not trying to clarify the way we operate this legislation, in my view, to the best benefit of those affected by it.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The content which we have added to Clause 12 is a targeted approach. It reflects input from a wide range of interested parties, with whom we have discussed this, on the areas of content that users are most concerned about. The other protected characteristics that do not appear are, for instance, somebody’s marriage or civil partnership status or whether they are pregnant. We have focused on the areas where there is the greatest need for users to be offered the choice about reducing their exposure to types of content because of the abuse they may get from it. This recognises the importance of clear, enforceable and technically feasible duties. As I said a moment ago in relation to the point made by my noble friend Lady Buscombe, we will keep it under review but it is right that these provisions be debated at length—greater length than I think the Equality Bill was, but that was long before my time in your Lordships’ House, so I defer to the noble Lord’s experience and I am grateful that we are debating them thoroughly today.

I will move now, if I may, to discuss Amendments 43 and 283ZA, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley. Amendment 43 aims to ensure that the user empowerment content features do not capture legitimate debate and discussion, specifically relating to the characteristics set out in subsections (11) and (12). Similarly, her Amendment 283ZA aims to ensure that category 1 services apply the features to content only when they have reasonable grounds to infer that it is user empowerment content.

With regard to both amendments, I can reassure the noble Baroness that upholding users’ rights to free expression is an integral principle of the Bill and it has been accounted for in drafting these duties. We have taken steps to ensure that legitimate online discussion or criticism will not be affected, and that companies make an appropriate judgment on the nature of the content in question. We have done this by setting high thresholds for inclusion in the content categories and through further clarification in the Bill’s Explanatory Notes, which I know she has consulted as well. However, the definition here deliberately sets a high threshold. By targeting only abuse and incitement to hatred, it will avoid capturing content which is merely challenging or robust discussion on controversial topics. Further clarity on definitions will be provided by Ofcom through regulatory guidance, on which it will be required to consult. That will sit alongside Ofcom’s code of practice, which will set out the steps companies can take to fulfil their duties.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Moved by
40: Clause 12, page 12, line 27, after “to” insert “effectively”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would bring this subsection into line with subsection (3) by requiring that the systems or processes available to users for the purposes described in subsections (7)(a) and (7)(b) should be effective.
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I will make one final point before I sit down. Freedom of speech is also a critical element of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. That is why I have been so concerned that it was introduced alongside online safety. I am glad that it has finally arrived in Parliament and that we will get to examine it before too long. But that is for another day—for now, I beg to move.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I have slightly abused my position because, as the noble Baroness has just said, this is a rather oddly constructed group. My amendments, which carve great chunks out of the Bill—or would do if I get away with it—do not quite point in the same direction as the very good speech the noble Baroness made, representing of course the view of the committee that she chairs so brilliantly. She also picked out one or two points of her own, which we also want to debate. It therefore might be easier if I just explain what I was trying to do in my amendments; then I will sit down and let the debate go, and maybe come back to pick up one or two threads at the end.

In previous Bills—and I have seen a lot of them—people who stand up and move clause stand part debates usually have a deeper and more worrying purpose behind the proposition. Either they have not read the Bill and are just trying to wing it, or they have a plan that is so complex and deep that it would probably need another whole Bill to sort it out. This is neither of those approaches; it is done because I want to represent the views mainly of the Joint Committee. We had quite a lot of debate in that committee about this area, beginning with the question about why the Bill—or the White Paper or draft Bill, at that stage—used the term “democratic importance” when many people would have used the parallel term “public interest” to try to reflect the need to ensure that matters which are of public good take place as a result of publication, or discussion and debate, or on online platforms. I am very grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Black, is able to be with us today. I am sure he will recall those debates, and hopefully he will make a comment on some of the work—and other members of the committee are also present.

To be clear, the question of whether Clauses 13, 14, 15 and 18 should stand part of the Bills is meant to release space for a new clause in Amendment 48. It is basically designed to try to focus the actions that are going to be taken by the Bill, and subsequently by the regulator, to ensure that the social media companies that are affected by, or in scope of, the Bill use, as a focus, some of the issues mainly related to “not taking down” and providing an appeal mechanism for journalistic material, whether that is provided by recognised news publishers or some other form of words that we can use, or it is done by recognised journalists. “Contentious” is an overused word, but all these terms are difficult to square away and be happy with, and therefore we should have the debate and perhaps reflect on that later when we come back to it.

The committee spent quite a lot of time on this, and there are two things that exercised our minds when we were working on this area. First, if one uses “content of democratic importance”, although it is in many ways quite a clever use of words to reflect a sensibility that you want to have an open and well-founded debate about matters which affect the health of our democracy, it can be read as being quite limiting. It is very hard to express—I am arguing against myself here—in the words of a piece of legislation what it is we are trying to get down to, but, during the committee’s recommendations, we received evidence that the definition of content of democratic importance was wider, or more capable of being interpreted as wider, than the scope the Government seem to have indicated. So there is both a good side and a bad side to this. If we are talking about content which is, or appears to be, specifically intended to contribute to the democratic political debate of the United Kingdom, or a part or area of the United Kingdom, we have got to ask the Minister to put on the record that this also inclusive of matters which perhaps initially do not appear necessarily to be part of it, but include public health, crime, justice, the environment, professional malpractice, the activities of large corporations and the hypocrisy of public figures when that occurs. I am not suggesting this is what we should be doing all the time, but these are things we often read about in our papers, and much the better off we are for it. However, if these things are not inclusive and not well rooted in the phrase “content of democratic importance”, it is up to the Government to come forward with a better way of expressing that, or perhaps in debate we can find it together.

I have some narrow questions. Are we agreed that what is currently in the Bill is intended specifically to contribute to democratic political debate, and is anything more needed to be said or done in order to make sure that happens? Secondly, the breadth of democratic political debate is obviously important; are there any issues here that are going to trip us up later when the Government come back and say, “Well, that wasn’t what we meant at all, and that doesn’t get covered, and therefore that stuff can be taken down, and that stuff there doesn’t have to be subject to repeal”? Are there contexts and subjects which we need to talk about? This is a long way into the question of content of democratic importance being similar or limited to matters that one recognises as relating to public interest. I think there is a case to be argued for the replacement of what is currently in the Bill with a way of trying to get closer to what we now recognise as being the standard form of debate and discussion when matters, which either the Government of the day or people individually do not like, get taken up and made the subject of legal discussion, because we do have discussions about whether or not it is in the public interest.

We probably do not know what that means. Therefore, a third part of my argument is that perhaps this is the point at which we try to define this, even though that might cause a lot of reaction from those currently in the press. In a sense, it is a question that needs to be resolved. Maybe this is or is not the right time to do that. Are the Government on the same page as the Joint Committee on this? Do they have an alternative and is this what they are trying to get across in the Bill?

Can we have a debate and discussion in relation to those things, making it clear that we want something in the Bill ensuring that vibrant political debate—the sort of things the noble Baroness was talking about on freedom of expression, but in a broader sense covering all the things that matter to the body politic, the people of this country—is not excluded by the Bill? That was the reason for putting down a raft of rather aggressive amendments. I hope it has been made clear that that was the case. I have other things that I would like to come back to, but I will probably do that towards the end of the debate. I hope that has been helpful.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, to which I have added my name. As we heard, the amendments originally sat in a different group, on the treatment of legal content accessed by adults. Noble Lords will be aware from my previous comments that my primary focus for the Bill has been on the absence of adequate provisions for the protection of adults, particularly those who are most vulnerable. These concerns underpin the brief remarks I will make.

The fundamental challenge at the heart of the Bill is the need to balance protection with the right to freedom of expression. The challenge, of course, is how. The noble Baroness’s amendments seek to find that balance. They go beyond the requirements on transparency reporting in Clause 68 in several ways. Amendment 46 would provide a duty for category 1 services to maintain an up-to-date document for users of the service, ensuring that users understand the risks they face and how, for instance, user empowerment tools can be used to help mitigate these risks. It also provides a duty for category 1 services to update their risk assessments before making any “significant change” to the design or operation of their service. This would force category 1 services to consider the impact of changes on users’ safety and make users aware of changes before they happen, so that they can take any steps necessary to protect themselves and prepare for them. Amendment 47 provides additional transparency by providing a duty for category 1 services to release a public statement of the findings of the most recent risk assessment, which includes any impact on freedom of expression.

The grouping of these amendments is an indication, if any of us were in doubt, of the complexity of balancing the rights of one group against the rights of another. Regardless of the groupings, I hope that the Minister takes note of the breadth and depth of concerns, as well as the willingness across all sides of the Committee to work together on a solution to this important issue.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to have been part of this debate and to have heard how much we are on common ground. I very much hope that, in particular, the Minister will have listened to the voices on the Conservative Benches that have very powerfully put forward a number of amendments that I think have gained general acceptance across the Committee.

I fully understand the points that the noble Lord, Lord Black, made and why he defends Clause 14. I hope we can have a more granular discussion about the contents of that clause rather than wrap it up on this group of amendments. I do not know whether we will be able to have that on the next group.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for putting forward her amendment. It is very interesting, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Bull and Lady Fraser, said, that we are trying to get to the same sort of mechanisms of risk assessment, perhaps out of different motives, but we are broadly along the same lines and want to see them for adult services. We want to know from the Minister why we cannot achieve that, basically. I am sure we could come to some agreement between us as to whether user empowerment tools or terms of service are the most appropriate way of doing it.

We need to thank the committee that the noble Baroness chairs for having followed up on the letter to the Secretary of State for DCMS, as was, on 30 January. It is good to see a Select Committee using its influence to go forward in this way.

The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, and supported by my noble friend Lady Featherstone—I am sorry she is unable to be here today, as he said—are important. They would broaden out consideration in exactly the right kind of way.

However, dare I say it, probably the most important amendment in this group is Amendment 48 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. Apart from the Clause 14 stand part notice, it is pretty much bang on where the Joint Committee got to. He was remarkably tactful in not going into any detail on the Government’s response to that committee. I will not read it out because of the lateness of the hour, but the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, got pretty close to puncturing the Government’s case that there is no proper definition of public interest. It is quite clear that there is a perfectly respectable definition in the Human Rights Act 1998 and, as the noble Viscount said, in the Defamation Act 2013, which would be quite fit for purpose. I do not quite know why the Government responded as they did at paragraph 251. I very much hope that the Minister will have another look at that.

The amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, which has the very respectable support of Justice, is also entirely apposite. I very much hope that the Government will take a good look at that.

Finally, and extraordinarily, I have quite a lot of sympathy with the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. It was all going so well until we got to Amendment 294; up to that point I think he had support from across the House, because placing that kind of duty on Ofcom would be a positive way forward.

As I say, getting a clause of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has put forward, with that public interest content point and with an umbrella duty on freedom of expression, allied to the definition from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, would really get us somewhere.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Lawyers—don’t you love them? How on earth are we supposed to unscramble that at this time of night? It was good to have my kinsman, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, back in our debates. We were remarking only a few days ago that we had not seen enough lawyers in the House in these debates. One appears, and light appears. It is a marvellous experience.

I thank the Committee for listening to my earlier introductory remarks; I hope they helped to untangle some of the issues. The noble Lord, Lord Black, made it clear that the press are happy with what is in the current draft. There could be some changes, and we have heard a number of examples of ways in which one might either top or tail what there is.

There was one question that perhaps he could have come back on, and maybe he will, as I have raised it separately with the department before. I agree with a lot of what he said, but it applies to a lot more than just news publishers. Quality journalism more generally enhances and restores our faith in public services in so many ways. Why is it only the news? Is there a way in which we could broaden that? If there is not this time round, perhaps that is something we need to pick up later.

As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has said, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, made a very strong and clear case for trying to think again about what journalism does in the public realm and making sure that the Bill at least carries that forward, even if it does not deal with some of the issues that he raised.

We have had a number of other good contributions about how to capture some of the good ideas that were flying around in this debate and keep them in the foreground so that the Bill is enhanced. But I think it is time that the Minister gave us his answers.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I join noble Lords who have sent good wishes for a speedy recovery to the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone.

Amendments 46, 47 and 64, in the name of my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, seek to require platforms to assess the risk of, and set terms for, content currently set out in Clause 12. Additionally, the amendments seek to place duties on services to assess risks to freedom of expression resulting from user empowerment tools. Category 1 platforms are already required to assess the impact on free expression of their safety policies, including user empowerment tools; to keep that assessment up to date; to publish it; and to demonstrate the positive steps they have taken in response to the impact assessment in a publicly available statement.

Amendments 48 and 100, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, seek to introduce a stand-alone duty on category 1 services to protect freedom of expression, with an accompanying code of practice. Amendments 49, 50, 53A, 61 and 156, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, seek to amend the Bill’s Clause 17 and Clause 18 duties and clarify duties on content of democratic importance.

All in-scope services must already consider and implement safeguards for freedom of expression when fulfilling their duties. Category 1 services will need to be clear what content is acceptable on their services and how they will treat it, including when removing or restricting access to it, and that they will enforce the rules consistently. In setting these terms of service, they must adopt clear policies designed to protect journalistic and democratic content. That will ensure that the most important types of content benefit from additional protections while guarding against the arbitrary removal of any content. Users will be able to access effective appeal mechanisms if content is unfairly removed. That marks a considerable improvement on the status quo.

Requiring all user-to-user services to justify why they are removing or restricting each individual piece of content, as Amendment 53A would do, would be disproportionately burdensome on companies, particularly small and medium-sized ones. It would also duplicate some of the provisions I have previously outlined. Separately, as private entities, service providers have their own freedom of expression rights. This means that platforms are free to decide what content should or should not be on their website, within the bounds of the law. The Bill should not mandate providers to carry or to remove certain types of speech or content. Accordingly, we do not think it would be appropriate to require providers to ensure that free speech is not infringed, as suggested in Amendment 48.

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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It is so complicated that the Minister is almost enticing me to stand up and ask about it. Let us just get that right: the reference to the Article 8 powers exists and applies to those bodies in the UK to which such equivalent legislation applies, so that ties us into Ofcom. Companies cannot be affected by it because it is a public duty, not a private duty, but am I then allowed to walk all the way around the circle? At the end, can Ofcom look back at the companies to establish whether, in Ofcom’s eyes, its requirements in relation to its obligations under Article 8 have or have not taken place? It is a sort of transparent, backward-reflecting view rather than a proactive proposition. That seems a complicated way of saying, “Why don’t you behave in accordance with Article 8?”

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, Ofcom, which is bound by it through the Human Rights Act 1998, can ask those questions and make that assessment of the companies, but it would not be right for private companies to be bound by something to which it is not appropriate for companies to be signatories. Ofcom will be looking at these questions but the duty rests on it, as bound by the Human Rights Act.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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It is late at night and this is slightly tedious, but in the worst of all possible circumstances, Ofcom would be looking at what happened over the last year in relation to its codes of practice and assertions about a particular company. Ofcom is then in trouble because it has not discharged its Article 8 obligations, so who gets to exercise a whip on whom? Sorry, whips are probably the wrong things to use, but you see where I am coming from. All that is left is for the Secretary of State, but probably it would effectively be Parliament, to say to Ofcom, “You’ve failed”. That does not seem a very satisfactory solution.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Platforms will be guided by Ofcom in taking measures to comply with their duties which are recommended in Ofcom’s codes, and which contain safeguards for privacy, including ones based on the European Convention on Human Rights and the rights therein. Paragraph 10(2)(b) of Schedule 4 requires Ofcom to ensure that measures, which it describes in the code of practice, are designed in light of the importance of protecting the privacy of users. Clause 42(2) and (3) provides that platforms will be treated as complying with the privacy duties set out at Clause 18(2) and Clause 28(2), if they take the recommended measures that Ofcom sets out in the codes.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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That is the point I was making.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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It worked. In seriousness, we will both consult the record and, if the noble Lord wants more, I am very happy to set it out in writing.

Amendment 63 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, seeks to clarify that “freedom of expression” in Clause 18 refers to the

“freedom to impart ideas, opinions or information”,

as referred to in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I think I too have been guilty of using the phrases “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” as though they were interchangeable. Freedom of expression, within the law, is intended to encompass all the freedom of expression rights arising from UK law, including under common law. The rights to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights include both the rights to impart ideas, opinions and information, but also the right to receive such ideas, opinions and information. Any revised definition of freedom of expression to be included in the Bill should refer to both aspects of the Article 10 definition, given the importance for both children and adults of receiving information via the internet. We recognise the importance of clarity in relation to the duties set out in Clauses 18 and 28, and we are very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for proposing this amendment, and for the experience he brings to bear on behalf of the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and the Online Safety Bill serve very different purposes, but I am happy to say that the Bill team and I will consider this amendment closely between now and Report.

Amendments 101, 102, 109, 112, 116, 121, 191 and 220, in the name of my noble friend Lord Moylan, seek to require Ofcom to have special regard to the importance of protecting freedom of expression when exercising its enforcement duties, and when drafting or amending codes of practice or guidance. Ofcom must already ensure that it protects freedom of expression when overseeing the Bill, because it is bound by the Human Rights Act, as I say. It also has specific duties to ensure that it is clear about how it is protecting freedom of expression when exercising its duties, including when developing codes of practice.

My noble friend’s Amendment 294 seeks to remove “psychological” from the definition of harm in the Bill. It is worth being clear that the definition of harm is used in the Bill as part of the illegal and child safety duties. There is no definition of harm, psychological or otherwise, with regard to adults, given that the definition of content which is harmful to adults was removed from the Bill in another place. With regard to children, I agree with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. It is important that psychological harm is captured in the Bill’s child safety duties, given the significant impact that such content can have on young minds.

I invite my noble friend and others not to press their amendments in this group.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very clear and precise introduction of these amendments. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, we will return to some of the underlying issues in future debates. It may be that this is just an aperitif to give us a chance to get our minds around these things, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said.

It is sometimes a bit difficult to understand exactly what issue is being addressed by some of these amendments. Even trying to say them got us into a bit of trouble. I think I follow the logic of where we are in the amendments that deal with the difference between adult material and children’s material, but it would benefit us all if the Minister could repeat it, perhaps a little slower this time, and we will see if we can agree that that is the way forward.

Broadly speaking, we accept the arrangements. They clarify the issues under which the takedown and appeal mechanisms will work. They are interfacing with the question of how the Bill deals with legal but harmful material, particularly for those persons who might wish not to see material and will not be warned about it under any process currently in the Bill but will have a toggle to turn to. It safeguards children who would not otherwise be covered by that. That is a fair balance to be struck.

Having said that, we will be returning to this. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made the good point that we have a rather ironic situation where a press regulation structure set up and agreed by Parliament is not in operation across the whole of the press, but we do not seem to make any accommodation for that. This is perhaps something we should return to at a later date.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I want very briefly to probe something. I may have got the wrong end of the stick, but I want to just ask about the recognised news publishers. The Minister’s explanation about what these amendments are trying to do was very clear, but I have some concerns.

I want to know how this will affect how we understand what a recognised news publisher is in a world in which we have many citizen journalists, blogs and online publications. One of the democratising effects of the internet has been in opening up spaces for marginalised voices, campaign journalism and so on. I am worried that we may inadvertently put them into a category of being not recognised; maybe the Minister can just explain that.

I am also concerned that, because this is an area of some contention, this could be a recipe for all sorts of litigious disputes with platforms about content removal, what constitutes those carve-outs and what is a recognised news, journalism or publishing outlet.

I know we will come on to this, but for now I am opposed to Amendment 127 in this group—or certainly concerned that it is an attempt to coerce publishers into a post-Leveson regulatory structure by denying them the protections that the Bill will give news publishers, unless they sign up in certain ways. I see that as blackmail and bullying, which I am concerned about. Much of the national press and many publishers have refused to join that kind of regulatory regime post Leveson, as is their right; I support them in the name of press freedom. Any comments or clarifications would be helpful.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, this has been an interesting short debate and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, made a very simple proposition. I am very grateful to her for introducing this so clearly and comprehensively. Of course, it is all about the way that platforms will identify illegal, fraudulent advertising and attempt to align it with other user-to-user content in terms of transparency, reporting, user reporting and user complaints. It is a very straightforward proposition.

First of all, however, we should thank the Government for acceding to what the Joint Committee suggested, which was that fraudulent advertising should be brought within the scope of the Bill. But, as ever, we want more. That is what it is all about and it is a very straightforward proposition which I very much hope the Minister will accede to.

We have heard from around the Committee about the growing problem and I will be very interested to read the report that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, was talking about, in terms of the introduction of fraud into children’s lives—that is really important. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, mentioned some of the statistics from Clean Up the Internet, Action Fraud and so on, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. And, of course, it is now digital. Some 80% of fraud, as he said, is cyber-enabled, and 23% of all reported frauds are initiated on social media—so this is bang in the area of the Bill.

It has been very interesting to see how some of the trade organisations, the ABI and others, have talked about the impact of fraud, including digital fraud. The ABI said:

“Consumers’ confidence is being eroded by the ongoing proliferation of online financial scams, including those predicated on impersonation of financial service providers and facilitated through online advertising. Both the insurance and long-term savings sectors are impacted by financial scams perpetrated via online paid-for advertisements, which can deprive vulnerable consumers of their life savings and leave deep emotional scars”.


So, this is very much a cross-industry concern and very visible to the insurance industry and no doubt to other sectors as well.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, on her chairing of the fraud committee and on the way it came to its conclusions and scrutinised the Bill. Paragraphs 559, 560 and 561 all set out where the Bill needs to be aligned to the other content that it covers. As she described, there are two areas where the Bill can be improved. If they are not cured, they will substantially undermine its ability to tackle online fraud effectively.

This has the backing of Which? As the Minister will notice, it is very much a cross-industry and consumer body set of amendments, supporting transparency reporting and making sure that those platforms with more fraudulent advertising make proportionately larger changes to their systems. That is why there is transparency reporting for all illegal harms that platforms are obliged to prevent. There is no reason why advertising should be exempt. On user reporting and complaints, it is currently unclear whether this applies only to illegal user-generated content and unpaid search content or if it also applies to illegal fraudulent advertisements. At the very least, I hope the Minister will clarify that today.

Elsewhere, the Bill requires platforms to allow users to complain if the platform fails to comply with its duties to protect users from illegal content and with regard to the content-reporting process. I very much hope the Minister will accede to including that as well.

Some very simple requests are being made in this group. I very much hope that the Minister will take them on board.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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It is the simple requests that always seem to evade the easy solutions. I will not go back over the very good introductory speech from the noble Baroness, which said it all; the figures are appalling and the range of fraud-inspired criminality is extraordinary. It plays back to a point we have been hammering today: if this Bill is about anything, it is the way the internet amplifies that which would be unpleasant anyway but will now reach epidemic proportions.

I wonder whether that is the clue to the problem the noble Baroness was commenting on—I think more in hope than in having any way to resolve it. It is great news that three Bills are doing all the stuff we want. We have talked a bit about three-legged stools; this is another one that might crash over. If we are not careful, it will slip through the cracks. I am mixing my metaphors again.

If the Minister would not mind a bit of advice, it seems to me that this Bill could do certain things and do them well. It should not hold back and wait for the others to catch up or do things differently. The noble Baroness made the point about the extraordinarily difficult to understand gap, in that what is happening to priority illegal content elsewhere in the Bill does not apply to this, even though it is clearly illegal activity. I understand that there is a logical line that it is not quite the same thing—that the Bill is primarily about certain restricted types of activity on social media and not the generality of fraud—but surely the scale of the problem and our difficulty in cracking down on it, by whatever routes and whatever size of stool we choose, suggest that we should do what we can in this Bill and do it hard, deeply and properly.

Secondly, we have amendments later in Committee on the role of the regulators and the possibility recommended by the Communications and Digital Committee that we should seek statutory backing for regulation in this area. Here is a classic example of more than two regulators working to achieve the same end that will probably bump into each other on the way. There is no doubt that the FCA has primary responsibility in this area, but the reality is that the damage is being done by the amplification effect within the social media companies.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Moved by
56: After Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
“OFCOM reviews of complaints systems
(1) Within the period of one year beginning on the day on which this Act is passed, and annually thereafter, OFCOM must review the workings of the complaints systems set up by regulated companies under section 17 (duties about complaints procedures), as to—(a) their effectiveness;(b) their cost and efficiency; and(c) such other matters as seem appropriate.(2) In undertaking the reviews under subsection (1), OFCOM may take evidence from such bodies and individuals as it considers appropriate.(3) If OFCOM determines from the nature of the complaints being addressed, and the volumes of such complaints, that systems established under section 17 are not functioning as intended, it may establish an online safety ombudsman with the features outlined in subsections (4) to (8), with the costs of this service being met from the levy on regulated companies.(4) The purpose of the online safety ombudsman is to provide an impartial out-of-court procedure for the resolution of any dispute between—(a) a user of a regulated user-to-user service, or a nominated representative for that user, and(b) the regulated service provider,in cases where complaints made under processes which are compliant with section 17 have not, in the view of the user (or their representative), been adequately addressed.(5) The ombudsman must allow for a user (or their representative) who is a party to such a dispute to refer their case to the ombudsman if they are of the view that any feature or conduct of one or more provider of a regulated user-to-user service, which is relevant to that dispute, presents (or has presented) a material risk of—(a) significant or potential harm;(b) contravening a user’s rights, as set out in the Human Rights Act 1998, including freedom of expression; or(c) failure to uphold terms of service.(6) The ombudsman may make special provision for children, including (but not limited to) prioritisation of—(a) relevant provisions under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; or(b) a child’s physical, emotional or psychological state.(7) The ombudsman must have regard to the desirability of any dispute resolution service provided by the ombudsman being— (a) free;(b) easy to use, including (where relevant) taking into account the needs of vulnerable users and children;(c) effective and timely;(d) fair and flexible, taking into account different forms of technology and the unique needs of different types of user; and(e) transparent.(8) The Secretary of State must ensure that use of any dispute resolution service provided by the ombudsman does not affect the ability of a user (or their representative) to bring a claim in civil proceedings.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require Ofcom to conduct regular reviews of the effectiveness of complaints procedures under Clause 17. If Ofcom were of the view that such procedures were not functioning effectively, they would be able to establish an online safety ombudsman with the features outlined in subsections (4) to (8) of the Clause.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, Amendment 56 proposes a pathway towards setting up an independent ombudsman for the social media space. It is in my name, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his support. For reasons I will go into, my amendment is a rather transparent and blatant attempt to bridge a gap with the Government, who have a sceptical position on this issue, and I hope that the amendment in its present form will prove more attractive to them than our original proposal.

At the same time, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has tabled an amendment on this issue, proposing an independent appeals mechanism

“to provide impartial out of court resolutions for individual users of regulated services”.

Given that this is almost exactly what I want to see in place—as was set out in my original amendment, which was subsequently rubbished by the Government—I have also signed the noble Baroness’s amendment, and I very much look forward to her speech. The Government have a choice.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, also has amendments in this group, although they are pointing in a slightly different direction. I will not speak to them at this point in the proceedings, although I make it absolutely clear that, while I look forward to hearing her arguments —she is always very persuasive—I support the Bill’s current proposals on super-complaints.

Returning to the question of why we think the Bill should make provision for an independent complaints system or ombudsman, I suppose that, logically, we ought first to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, then listen to the Government’s response, which presumably will be negative. My compromise amendment could then be considered and, I hope, win the day with support from all around the Committee—in my dreams.

We have heard the Government’s arguments already. As the Minister said in his introduction to the Second Reading debate all those months ago on 1 February 2023, he was unsympathetic. At that time, he said:

“Ombudsman services in other sectors are expensive, often underused and primarily relate to complaints which result in financial compensation. We find it difficult to envisage how an ombudsman service could function in this area, where user complaints are likely to be complex and, in many cases, do not have the impetus of financial compensation behind them”.—[Official Report, 1/2/23; col. 690.]


Talk about getting your retaliation in first.

My proposal is based on the Joint Committee’s unanimous recommendation:

“The role of the Online Safety Ombudsman should be created to consider complaints about actions by higher risk service providers where either moderation or failure to address risks leads to … demonstrable harm (including to freedom of expression) and recourse to other routes of redress have not resulted in a resolution”.


The report goes on to say that there could

“be an option in the Bill to extend the remit of the Ombudsman to lower risk providers. In addition … the Ombudsman would as part of its role i) identify issues in individual companies and make recommendations to improve their complaint handling and ii) identify systemic industry wide issues and make recommendations on regulatory action needed to remedy them. The Ombudsman should have a duty to gather data and information and report it to Ofcom. It should be an ‘eligible entity’ to make super-complaints”

possible. It is a very complicated proposal. Noble Lords will understand from the way the proposal is framed that it would provide a back-up to the primary purpose of complaints, which must be to the individual company and the service it is providing. But it would be based on a way of learning from experience, which it would build up as time went on.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will flesh out the Joint Committee’s thinking on this issue when he comes to speak, but I make the point that other countries preparing legislation on online safety are in fact building in independent complaints systems; we are an outlier on this. Australia, Canada and others have already legislated. Another very good example nearer to hand is in Ireland. We are very lucky to have with us today the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, a member of the expert panel whose advice to the Irish Government to set up such a system in her excellent report in May 2022 has now been implemented. I hope that she will share her thoughts about these amendments later in the debate.

Returning to the Government’s reservations about including an ombudsman service in the Bill, I make the following points based on my proposals in Amendment 56. There need not be any immediate action. The amendment as currently specified requires Ofcom to review complaints systems set up by the companies under Clause 17 as to their effectiveness and efficiency. It asks Ofcom to take other evidence into account and then, and only then, to take the decision of whether to set up an ombudsman system. If there were no evidence of a need for such a service, it would not happen.

As for the other reservations raised by the Minister when he spoke at Second Reading, he said:

“Ombudsman services in other sectors are expensive”.


We agree, but we assume that this would be on a cost recovery model, as other Ofcom services are funded in that way. The primary focus will always be resolving complaints about actions or inactions of particular companies in the companies’ own redress systems, and Ofcom can always keep that under review.

He said that they are “often underused”. Since we do not know at the start what the overall burden will be, we think that the right solution is to build up slowly and let Ofcom decide. There are other reasons why it makes sense to prepare for such a service, and I will come to these in a minute.

He said that other ombudsman services

“primarily relate to complaints which result in financial compensation”.

That is true, but the evidence from other reports, and that we received in the Joint Committee, was that most complainants want non-financial solutions: they want egregious material taken down or to ensure that certain materials are not seen. They are not after the money. Where a company is failing to deliver on those issues in their own complaints system, to deny genuine complainants an appeal to an independent body seems perverse and not in accordance with natural justice.

He said that

“user complaints are likely to be complex”.—[Official Report, 1/2/23; col. 690.]

Yes, they probably are, but that seems to be an argument for an independent appeals body, not against it.

To conclude, we agree that Ofcom should not be the ombudsman and that the right approach is for Ofcom to set up the system as and when it judges that it would be appropriate. We do not want Ofcom to be swamped with complaints from users of regulated services, who, for whatever reason, have not been satisfied by the response of the individual companies or to complex cases, or seek system-wide solutions. But Ofcom needs to know what is happening on the ground, across the sector, as well as in each of the regulated companies, and it needs to be kept aware of how the system as a whole is performing. The relationship between the FCA and the Financial Ombudsman Service is a good model here. Indeed, the fact that some of the responsibilities to be given to Ofcom in the Bill will give rise to complaints to the FOS suggests that there would be good sense in aligning these services right from the start.

We understand that the experience from Australia is that the existence of an independent complaints function can strengthen the regulatory functions. There is also evidence that the very existence of an independent complaints mechanism can provide reassurances to users that their online safety is being properly supported. I beg to move.

Baroness Newlove Portrait Baroness Newlove (Con)
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My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken in Committee. I know we have 10 days, but it seems that we will go even further because this is so important. I will speak to Amendments 250A and 250B.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Russell of Liverpool and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and, of course— if I may be permitted to say so—the amazing noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who is an absolute whizz on this, for placing their names on these amendments, as well as the 5Rights Foundation, the Internet Watch Foundation and the UK Safer Internet Centre for their excellent briefings. I have spoken to these charities, and the work they do is truly amazing. I do not think that the Bill will recognise just how much time and energy they give to support families and individuals. Put quite simply, we can agree that services’ internal complaint mechanisms are failing.

Let me tell your Lordships about Harry. Harry is an autistic teenager who was filmed by a member of the public in a local fast-food establishment when he was dysregulated and engaging in aggressive behaviour. This footage was shared out of context across social media, with much of the response online labelling Harry as a disruptive teenager who was engaging in unacceptable aggression and vandalising public property. This was shared thousands of times over the course of a few weeks. When Harry and his mum reported it to the social media platforms, they were informed that it did not violate community guidelines and that there was a public interest in the footage remaining online. The family, quite rightly, felt powerless. Harry became overwhelmed at the negative response to the footage and the comments made about his behaviour. He became withdrawn and stopped engaging. He then tried to take his own life.

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Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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I stress again that the period in question is two years not three.

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Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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The answer to the noble Lord’s question is that the super-complaint is not a mechanism for individuals to complain on an individual basis and seek redress.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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This is getting worse and worse. I am tempted to suggest that we stop talking about this and try to, in a smaller group, bottom out what we are doing. I really think that the Committee deserves a better response on super-complaints than it has just heard.

As I understood it—I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is about to make the same point—super-complaints are specifically designed to take away the pressure on vulnerable and younger persons to have responsibility only for themselves in bringing forward the complaint that needs to be resolved. They are a way of sharing that responsibility and taking away the pressure. Is the Minister now saying that that is a misunderstanding?

Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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I have offered a meeting; I am very happy to host the meeting to bottom out these complaints.

Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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As I said, I am very happy to hold the meeting. We are giving users greater protection through the Bill, and, as agreed, we can discuss individual routes to recourse.

I hope that, on the basis of what I have said and the future meeting, noble Lords have some reassurance that the Bill’s complaint mechanisms will, eventually, be effective and proportionate, and feel able not to press their amendments.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I am very sorry that I did not realise that the Minister was responding to this group of amendments; I should have welcomed him to his first appearance in Committee. I hope he will come back—although he may have to spend a bit of time in hospital, having received a pass to speak on this issue from his noble friend.

This is a very complicated Bill. The Minister and I have actually talked about that over tea, and he is now learning the hard lessons of what he took as a light badinage before coming to the Chamber today. However, we are in a bit of a mess here. I was genuinely trying to get an amendment that would encourage the department to move forward on this issue, because it is quite clear from the mood around the Committee that something needs to be resolved here. The way the Government are approaching this is by heading towards a brick wall, and I do not think it is the right way forward.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, this is unfamiliar territory for me, but the comprehensive introduction of the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, has clarified the issue. I am only disappointed that we had such a short speech from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—uncharacteristic, perhaps I could say—but it was good to hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, on this subject as well. The noble Baroness’s phrase “devolution deficit” is very useful shorthand for some of these issues. She has raised a number of questions about the Secretary of State’s powers under Clause 53(5)(c): the process, the method of consultation and whether there is a role for Ofcom’s national advisory committees. Greater transparency in order to understand which offences overlap in all this would be very useful. She deliberately did not go for one solution or another, but issues clearly arise where the thresholds are different. It would be good to hear how the Government are going to resolve this issue.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pity that we have not had the benefit of hearing from the Minister, because a lot of his amendments in this group seem to bear on some of the more generic points made in the very good speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser. I assume he will cover them, but I wonder whether he would at least be prepared to answer any questions people might come back with—not in any aggressive sense; we are not trying to scare the pants off him before he starts. For example, the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, intrigue me.

I used to have responsibility for devolved issues when I worked at No. 10 for a short period. It was a bit of a joke, really. Whenever anything Welsh happened, I was immediately summoned down to Cardiff and hauled over the coals. You knew when you were in trouble when they all stopped speaking English and started speaking Welsh; then, you knew there really was an issue, whereas before I just had to listen, go back and report. In Scotland, nobody came to me anyway, because they knew that the then Prime Minister was a much more interesting person to talk to about these things. They just went to him instead, so I did not really learn very much.

I noticed some issues in the Marshalled List that I had not picked up on when I worked on this before. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to address this—I do not want to delay the Committee too much—but are we saying that to apply a provision in the Bill to the Bailiwick of Guernsey or the Isle of Man, an Order in Council is required to bypass Parliament? Is that a common way of proceeding in these places? I suspect that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, knows much more about this than I do—he shakes his head—but this is a new one on me. Does it mean that this Parliament has no responsibility for how its laws are applied in those territories, or are there other procedures of which we are unaware?

My second point again picks up what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was saying. Could the Minister go through in some detail the process by which a devolved authority would apply to the Secretary of State—presumably for DSIT—to seek consent for a devolved offence to be included in the Online Safety Bill regime? If this is correct, who grants to what? Does this come to the House as a statutory instrument? Is just the Secretary of State involved, or does it go to the Privy Council? Are there other ways that we are yet to know about? It would be interesting to know.

To echo the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, we probably do need a letter from the Minister, if he ever gets this cleared, setting out exactly how the variation in powers would operate across the four territories. If there are variations, we would like to know about them.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie for her vigilance in this area and for the discussion she had with the Bill team, which they and I found useful. Given the tenor of this short but important debate, I think it may be helpful if we have a meeting for other noble Lords who also want to benefit from discussing some of these things in detail, and particularly to talk about some of the issues the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, just raised. It would be useful for us to talk in detail about general questions on the operation of the law before we look at this again on Report.

In a moment, I will say a bit about the government amendments which stand in my name. I am sure that noble Lords will not be shy in taking the opportunity to interject if questions arise, as they have not been shy on previous groups.

I will start with the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Fraser. Her Amendment 58 seeks to add reference to the Human Rights Act 1998 to Clause 18. That Act places obligations on public authorities to act compatibly with the European Convention on Human Rights. It does not place obligations on private individuals and companies, so it would not make sense for such a duty on internet services to refer to the Human Rights Act.

Under that Act, Ofcom has obligations to act in accordance with the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result, the codes that Ofcom draws up will need to comply with the Article 10 right to freedom of expression. Schedule 4 to the Bill requires Ofcom to ensure that measures which it describes in a code of practice are designed in light of the importance of protecting the right of users’

“freedom of expression within the law”.

Clauses 44(2) and (3) provide that platforms will be treated as complying with their freedom of expression duty if they take the recommended measures that Ofcom sets out in the codes. Platforms will therefore be guided by Ofcom in taking measures to comply with its duties, including safeguards for freedom of expression through codes of practice.

My noble friend’s Amendment 136 seeks to add offences under the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 to Schedule 7. Public order offences are already listed in Schedule 7 to the Bill, which will apply across the whole United Kingdom. This means that all services in scope will need proactively to tackle content that amounts to an offence under the Public Order Act 1986, regardless of where the content originates or where in the UK it can be accessed.

The priority offences list has been developed with the devolved Administrations, and Clause 194 outlines the parliamentary procedures for updating it. The requirements for consent will be set out in the specific subordinate legislation that may apply to the particular offence being made by the devolved authorities—that is to say, they will be laid down by the enabling statutes that Parliament will have approved.

Amendment 228 seeks to require the inclusion of separate analyses of users’ online experiences in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in Ofcom’s transparency reports. These transparency reports are based on the information requested from category 1, 2A and 2B service providers through transparency reporting. I assure my noble friend that Ofcom is already able to request country-specific information from providers in its transparency reports. The legislation sets out high-level categories of information that category 1, 2A and 2B services may be required to include in their transparency reports. The regulator will set out in a notice the information to be requested from the provider, the format of that information and the manner in which it should be published. If appropriate, Ofcom may request specific information in relation to each country in the UK, such as the number of users encountering illegal content and the incidence of such content.

Ofcom is also required to undertake consultation before producing guidance about transparency reporting. In order to ensure that the framework is proportionate and future-proofed, however, it is vital to allow the regulator sufficient flexibility to request the types of information that it sees as relevant, and for that information to be presented by providers in a manner that Ofcom has deemed to be appropriate.

Similarly, Amendment 225A would require separate analyses of users’ online experiences in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in Ofcom’s research about users’ experiences of regulated services. Clause 141 requires that Ofcom make arrangements to undertake consumer research to ascertain public opinion and the experiences of UK users of regulated services. Ofcom will already be able to undertake this research on a country-specific basis. Indeed, in undertaking its research and reporting duties, as my noble friend alluded to, Ofcom has previously adopted such an approach. For instance, it is required by the Communications Act 2003 to undertake consumer research. While the legislation does not mandate that Ofcom conduct and publish nation-specific research, Ofcom has done so, for instance through its publications Media Nations and Connected Nations. I hope that gives noble Lords some reassurance of its approach in this regard. Ensuring that Ofcom has flexibility in carrying out its research functions will enable us to future-proof the regulatory framework, and will mean that its research activity is efficient, relevant and appropriate.

I will now say a bit about the government amendments standing in my name. I should, in doing so, highlight that I have withdrawn Amendments 304C and 304D, previously in the Marshalled List, which will be replaced with new amendments to ensure that all the communications offences, including the new self-harm offence, have the appropriate territorial extent when they are brought forward. They will be brought forward as soon as possible once the self-harm offence has been tabled.

Amendments 267A, 267B, 267C, 268A, 268B to 268G, 271A to 271D, 304A, 304B and 304E are amendments to Clauses 160, 162, 164 to 166, 168 and 210 and Schedule 14, relating to the extension of the false and threatening communications offences and the associated liability of corporate officers in Clause 166 to Northern Ireland.

This group also includes some technical and consequential amendments to the false and threatening communications offences and technical changes to the Malicious Communications (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. This will minimise overlap between these existing laws and the new false and threatening communications offences in this Bill. Importantly, they mirror the approach taken for England and Wales, providing consistency in the criminal law.

This group also contains technical amendments to update the extent of the epilepsy trolling offence to reflect that it applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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With the offer of a broader meeting to give other noble Lords the benefit of the discussions with the Bill team that my noble friend has had—I extend that invitation to her, of course, to continue the conversation with us—I hope that provides information about the government amendments in this group and some reassurance on the points that my noble friend has made. I hope that she will be willing to withdraw her amendment and that noble Lords will accept the government amendments.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I suggested that we might see a table, independent of the meetings, although I am sure they could coincide. Would it be possible to have a table of all the criminal offences that the Minister listed and how they apply in each of the territories? Without that, we are a bit at sea as to exactly how they apply.

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The establishment of a specific unit within Ofcom, which was the subject of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, is potentially a very useful addition to the Bill. I very much hope that the Minister takes that on board as well.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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This has been a very good debate indeed. I have good days and bad days in Committee. Good days are when I feel that the Bill is going to make a difference and things are going to improve and the sun will shine. Bad days are a bit like today, where we have had a couple of groups, and this is one of them, where I am a bit worried about where we are and whether we have enough—I was going to use that terrible word “ammunition” but I do not mean that—of the powers that are necessary in the right place and with the right focus to get us through some of the very difficult questions that come in. I know that bad cases make bad law, but they can also illustrate why the law is not good enough. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, was saying, this is possibly one of the areas we are in.

The speeches in the debate have made the case well and I do not need to go back over it. We have got ourselves into a situation where we want to reduce harm that we see around but do not want to impact freedom of expression. Both of those are so important and we have to hold on to them, but we find ourselves struggling. What do we do about that? We think through what we will end up with this Bill on the statute book and the codes of practice through it. This looks as though it is heading towards the question of whether the terms of service that will be in place will be sufficient and able to restrict the harms we will see affecting people who should not be affected by them. But I recognise that the freedom of expression arguments have won the day and we have to live with that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, mentioned the riskiness of the smaller sites—categories 2A and 2B and the ones that are not even going to be categorised as high as that. Why are we leaving those to cause the damage that they are? There is something not working here in the structure of the Bill and I hope the Minister will be able to provide some information on that when he comes to speak.

Obviously, if we could find a way of expressing the issues that are raised by the measures in these amendments as being illegal in the real world, they would be illegal online as well. That would at least be a solution that we could rely on. Whether it could be policed and serviced is another matter, but it certainly would be there. But we are probably not going to get there, are we? I am not looking at the Minister in any hope but he has a slight downward turn to his lips. I am not sure about this.

How can we approach a legal but harmful issue with the sort of sensitivity that does not make us feel that we have reduced people’s ability to cope with these issues and to engage with them in an adult way? I do not have an answer to that.

Is this another amplification issue or is it deeper and worse than that? Is this just the internet because of its ability to focus on things to keep people engaged, to make people stay online when they should not, to make them reach out and receive material that they ought not to get in a properly regulated world? Is it something that we can deal with because we have a sense of what is moral and appropriate and want to act because society wants us to do it? I do not have a solution to that, and I am interested to hear what the Minister will say, but I think it is something we will need to come back to.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, like everyone who spoke, I and the Government recognise the tragic consequences of suicide and self-harm, and how so many lives and families have been devastated by it. I am grateful to the noble Baroness and all noble Lords, as well as the bereaved families who campaigned so bravely and for so long to spare others that heartache and to create a safer online environment for everyone. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, who raised these issues in her Private Member’s Bill, on which we had exchanges. My noble friend Lady Morgan is right to raise the case of Frankie Thomas and her parents, and to call that to mind as we debate these issues.

Amendments 96 and 296, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, would, in effect, reintroduce the former adult safety duties whereby category 1 companies were required to assess the risk of harm associated with legal content accessed by adults, and to set and enforce terms of service in relation to it. As noble Lords will know, those duties were removed in another place after extensive consideration. Those provisions risked creating incentives for the excessive removal of legal content, which would unduly interfere with adults’ free expression.

However, the new transparency, accountability and freedom of expression duties in Part 4, combined with the illegal and child safety duties in Part 3, will provide a robust approach that will hold companies to account for the way they deal with this content. Under the Part 4 duties, category 1 services will need to have appropriate systems and processes in place to deal with content or activity that is banned or restricted by their terms of service.

Many platforms—such as Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, which the noble Baroness raised—say in their terms of service that they restrict suicide and self-harm content, but they do not always enforce these policies effectively. The Bill will require category 1 companies—the largest platforms—fully to enforce their terms of service for this content, which will be a significant improvement for users’ safety. Where companies allow this content, the user-empowerment duties will give adults tools to limit their exposure to it, if they wish to do so.

The noble Baroness is right to raise the issue of algorithms. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, amplification lies at the heart of many cases. The Bill will require providers specifically to consider as part of their risk assessments how algorithms could affect children’s and adults’ exposure to illegal content, and content that is harmful to children, on their services. Providers will need to take steps to mitigate and effectively manage any risks, and to consider the design of functionalities, algorithms and other features to meet the illegal content and child safety duties in the Bill.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, they are—with the addition of what I am coming to. In addition to the duty for companies to consider the role of algorithms, which I talked about, Ofcom will have a range of powers at its disposal to help it assess whether providers are fulfilling their duties, including the power to require information from providers about the operation of their algorithms. The regulator will be able to hold senior executives criminally liable if they fail to ensure that their company is providing Ofcom with the information it requests.

However, we must not restrict users’ right to see legal content and speech. These amendments would prescribe specific approaches for companies’ treatment of legal content accessed by adults, which would give the Government undue influence in choosing, on adult users’ behalf, what content they see—

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I wanted to give the Minister time to get on to this. Can we now drill down a little on the terms of service issue? If the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, is right, are we talking about terms of service having the sort of power the Government suggest in cases where they are category 1 and category 2A but not search? There will be a limit, but an awful lot of other bodies about which we are concerned will not fall into that situation.

Also, I thought we had established, much to our regret, that the terms of service were what they were, and that Ofcom’s powers—I paraphrase to make the point—were those of exposure and transparency, not setting minimum standards. But even if we are talking only about the very large and far-reaching companies, should there not be a power somewhere to engage with that, with a view getting that redress, if the terms of service do not specify it?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The Bill will ensure that companies adhere to their terms of service. If they choose to allow content that is legal but harmful on their services and they tell people that beforehand—and adults are able and empowered to decide what they see online, with the protections of the triple shield—we think that that strikes the right balance. This is at the heart of the whole “legal but harmful” debate in another place, and it is clearly reflected throughout the approach in the Bill and in my responses to all of these groups of amendments. But there are duties to tackle illegal content and to make sure that people know the terms of service for the sites they choose to interact with. If they feel that they are not being adhered to—as they currently are not in relation to suicide and self-harm content on many of the services—users will have the recourse of the regulator to turn to.

Online Safety Bill

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I have held back from contributing to this group, because it is not really my group and I have not really engaged in the topic at all. I have been waiting to see whether somebody who is engaged in it would raise this point.

The one factual piece of information that has not been raised in the debate is the fact that the IWF, of which I too am a huge admirer—I have huge respect for the work that it does; it does some fantastic work—is a registered charity. That may lead to some very proper questions about what its role should be in any kind of formal relationship with a statutory regulator. I noticed that no one is proposing in any of these amendments that it be put on the face of the Bill, which, searching back into my previous roles and experience, I think I am right to say would not be proper anyway. But even in the context of whatever role it might have along with Ofcom, I genuinely urge the DCMS and/or Ofcom to ensure that they consult the Charity Commission, not just the IWF, on what is being proposed so that it is compatible with its other legal obligations as a charity.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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If I might follow up that comment, I agree entirely with what the noble Baroness has just said. It is very tricky for an independent charity to have the sort of relationship addressed in some of the language in this debate. Before the Minister completes his comments and sits down again, I ask him: if Ofcom were to negotiate a contracted set of duties with the IWF—indeed, with many other charities or others who are interested in assisting with this important work—could that be done directly by Ofcom, with powers that it already has? I think I am right to say that it would not require parliamentary approval. It is only if we are talking about co-regulation, which again raises other issues, that we would go through a process that requires what sounded like the affirmative procedure—the one that was used, for example, with the Advertising Standards Authority. Is that right?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, I think it is. I am happy to confirm that in writing. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Stowell, who of course is a former chairman of the Charity Commission, for making the point about the charitable status of the foundation. I should clarify that officials from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Home Office are in touch with the IWF about its role.

Speedily moving on, Ofcom is in discussion with the foundation about a memorandum of understanding. I hope that reassures the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that they are in reciprocal contact. Obviously, I cannot pre-empt where their discussions are taking them in relation to that MoU, but it is between Ofcom and the foundation. Careful consideration of governance, funding and issues of charity, as my noble friend raised, would have to be thought about if co-designation were being considered.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Moved by
110: Clause 38, page 38, line 24, leave out subsections (2) to (8) and insert—
“(2) Upon receiving the draft code of practice from OFCOM, the Secretary of State must— (a) make a statement confirming they have received the draft code of practice, and(b) lay the draft code of practice before Parliament.(3) Unless the Secretary of State intends to give a direction to OFCOM under section 39(1) in relation to the draft, regulations giving effect to the code of practice may not be laid before Parliament unless the Secretary of State has—(a) consulted each devolved authority on the content of the draft code of practice;(b) produced an impact assessment including, but not limited to, an assessment of the impact of the proposed regulations on—(i) human rights and equalities,(ii) freedom of expression, and(iii) employment and labour; and(c) produced an assessment of the impact of the proposed regulations on children and vulnerable adults.(4) The Secretary of State may not make regulations under this section until any select committee charged by the relevant House of Parliament with scrutinising regulations made under this section has—(a) completed its consideration of the draft code of practice and the impact assessments referred to in subsection (3)(b) and (c), and(b) reported on its deliberation to the relevant House; andthe report of the committee has been debated in that House, or the period of six weeks beginning on the day on which the committee reported has elapsed.(5) The Secretary of State may not lay regulations under this section until they are satisfied that—(a) issues raised by a devolved authority have been resolved, or(b) if they have not been resolved, the Secretary of State has informed Parliament of the steps they intend to take in response to the issues raised.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, which replaces most of the current Clause 38, would require the Secretary of State to publish draft codes of conduct from OFCOM for consideration by relevant committees of both Houses of Parliament.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 110 in my name and thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his support. This is a complex group of amendments but they are about very significant powers that are supposed to be granted to the Secretary of State in this Bill. We believe that this part of the Bill must be significantly amended before it leaves this House, and while we await the Government’s response to the amendments in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, I want to make it clear that if we do not see some significant movement from the Government we will return to these issues on Report. As it looks as though we will be having another long hiatus before Report, there is plenty of time for discussion and agreement.

Two House of Lords committees—the Communications and Digital Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee—have called on the Government to remove or amend a number of the clauses engaged by these amendments, and a third, the Constitution Committee, has noted the concerns raised. I think it fair to say that these issues concern all parties and all groups in the House and urgently need addressing. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, in her capacity as chair of the Communications and Digital Committee, has a number of amendments very similar to mine to which I and others have signed up, and which I know she will go through in detail. I support the line she and the committee are taking, although I make some additional suggestions in some areas.

The amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan —who I am sad to see is not in his place and who will not therefore be able to participate in this debate—broadly support the thrust of the amendments in this group. Perhaps they do not go quite as far as ours do, but it is certainly nice to have him on our side—for a change. I do not want to delay the Committee as I know many of us will want to discuss the points which will be raised in detail by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, so I think the best thing is for me to talk more generally about where we think the Government need to change approach, and I hope my remarks will open up the debate.

Before I do that, I thank the Carnegie Trust—I know a number of noble Lords have received documentation from it—for its detailed work in this area in particular, but it has covered the Bill comprehensively. It has been invaluable and we have also received support from the All-Party Digital Regulation Group, which has been pushing information around as well.

We have mentioned in the past the difficulty of amending the Bill because of the structures and the different way it treats the various types of company likely to be in scope. But, in essence, my amendments would ensure that Ofcom is able to operate as an independent regulator, delivering what is required of it under the Bill, and is not subject to instruction or direction by the Secretary of State except in exceptional circumstances. We are told that these will be restricted mainly to national security issues or public safety, though precisely what those issues are going to be needs spelling out in the Bill.

The Secretary of State should not be able to give Ofcom direction. In the broadcasting regime, there are no equivalent powers. Our press is not regulated in that way. We believe that the right approach is that the Secretary of State should, if he or she wishes, write to Ofcom with non-binding observations when it is thought necessary to do so. It would be for Ofcom to have regard to such letters, but there should be no requirement to act, provided that it operates within its powers as set out in the Bill. It follows that the powers taken by the Secretary of State in Clause 156 to issue directions to Ofcom in special circumstances, in Clause 157 to issue detailed tactical guidance to Ofcom in the exercise of its functions, and in Clause 153, which allows the Secretary of State to make a statement of strategic priorities relating to online safety, are significant threats to the independence of Ofcom, and we believe that they should be deleted. In addition, Clauses 38 and 39 need to be revised.

The independence of media regulators is important and must be preserved as it is at present. That is the norm in most developed democracies. The UK has signed many international statements in this vein, including, as recently as in April 2022 at the Council of Europe, a statement saying that

“media and communication governance should be independent and impartial to avoid undue influence on policy making, discriminatory treatment and preferential treatment of powerful groups, including those with significant political or economic power”.

I hope that when he comes to respond to the debate, the Minister will confirm that he stands by that international agreement that his Government have signed up to.

My second point deals with the other powers given to the Secretary of State in the Online Safety Bill—for example, to specify in regulations the primary priority content harmful to children and priority content harmful to children in Clause 54; to amend the duties on fraudulent advertising in Clause 191; to change the exemption to the regime in Clause 192; and to amend the list of terrorism offences, CSEA offences and other priority offences in Clause 194. Appropriate procedures for the exercise of these powers—ensuring that they are in line with the approach of this group of amendments —need to be set out in the Bill, because the present drafting is, in our view, inadequate. The reliance on conventional secondary legislation approval mechanisms will not be sufficient given the scale and impact of what is in contemplation.

At Second Reading, the Minister said,

“we remain committed to ensuring that Ofcom maintains its regulatory independence, which is vital to the success of this framework … We intend to bring forward two changes to the existing power: first, replacing the ‘public policy’ wording with a defined list of reasons that a direction can be made; and secondly, making it clear that this element of the power can only be used in exceptional circumstances … the framework ensures that Parliament will always have the final say on codes of practice, and that strong safeguards are in place to ensure that the use of this power is transparent and proportionate”.—[Official Report, 1/2/23; cols. 691-2.]

Those are fine words but, unfortunately, we have not yet seen the draft amendments that would give credence to that statement. Can the Minister give us any hint on the timetable?

My third point is that we are also not convinced that the processes currently specified for the approval of the high volume of secondary legislation pursuant to the Bill, including the codes of practice, engage sufficiently with Parliament. As my noble friend Lady Merron said at Second Reading, in our view the Bill suffers from an imbalance around what role Parliament should have in scrutinising the new regime and how changes to the statutory functions will be accommodated in future years. We can all agree that there will certainly be many more such occasions and more legislation in this area in future years.

This is, of course, a skeleton Bill, requiring significant amounts of secondary legislation before it begins to bite. How should Parliament be involved, both in the necessary scrutiny of those codes of practice, which put the regime into practice and define the way in which the regulated companies are to operate, and in anticipating changes that will be required as technology develops? It is to answer this question that I have put down a number of amendments aimed at carving out a role for the Select Committees of the two Houses—or perhaps a new Joint Committee, if that were to be the decision of Parliament. Indeed, that was a recommendation of the pre-legislative scrutiny committee and the Communications and Digital Committee in previous reports.

My Amendment 290, after Clause 197, tries to gather together the instances of powers exercisable by the Secretary of State and provide an additional parliamentary stage each time those powers are exercised. This would require that:

“The Secretary of State may not exercise the powers”


granted under the Bill unless and until

“any select committee charged by the relevant House of Parliament with scrutinising such regulations has … completed its consideration of the draft regulations and … reported on their deliberation to the relevant House”.

I appreciate that this is a major step. Introducing parliamentary scrutiny of this type may mean it takes more time to achieve results in what is already a complex process. Maybe this should be introduced in stages so as not to delay further the measures in the Bill.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am happy to continue to discuss it, and I will say a bit more about the other amendments in this group, but I am not able to say much more at this point. I will happily follow this up in discussion with my noble friend, as I know it is an issue of interest to her and other members of your Lordships’ committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked about our international obligations. As noble Lords noted, the Government have recognised the importance of regulatory independence in our work with international partners, such as the Council of Europe’s declaration on the independence of regulators. That is why we are bringing forward the amendments previously announced in another place. Ensuring that powers of direction can be issued only in exceptional circumstances and for a set of reasons defined in the Bill will ensure that the operational independence of Ofcom is not put at risk. That said, we must strike a balance between parliamentary oversight and being able to act quickly where necessary.

Regarding the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Stowell, which calls for all codes which have been altered by a direction to go through the affirmative procedure, as drafted, the negative procedure is used only if a direction is made to a code of practice relating to terrorism or child sexual exploitation or abuse, for reasons of national security or public safety. It is important that the parliamentary process be proportionate, particularly in cases involving national security or public safety, where a code might need to be amended quickly to protect people from harm. We therefore think that, in these cases, the negative procedure is more appropriate.

On timing, the Government are committed to ensuring that the framework is implemented quickly, and this includes ensuring that the codes of practice are in force. The threshold of exceptional circumstances for the power to direct can lead to a delay only in situations where there would otherwise be significant consequences for national security or public safety, or for the other reasons outlined today.

My noble friend Lord Moylan was not able to be here for the beginning of the debate on this group, but he is here now. Let me say a little about his Amendment 254. Under Clause 153, the Secretary of State can set out a statement of the Government’s strategic priorities in relation to matters of online safety. This power is necessary, as future technological changes are likely to shape online harms, and the Government must be able to state their strategic priorities in relation to them. My noble friend’s amendment would go beyond the existing precedent for the statement of strategic priorities in relation to telecommunications, management of the radio spectrum, and postal services outlined in the Communications Act. The Secretary of State must consult Ofcom and other appropriate persons when preparing this statement. This provides the opportunity for widespread scrutiny of a draft statement before it can be designated through a negative parliamentary procedure. We consider that the negative procedure is appropriate, in line with comparable existing arrangements.

Amendment 257 from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, seeks to remove the Secretary of State’s power to issue guidance to Ofcom about the exercise of its online safety functions. Issuing guidance of this kind, with appropriate safeguards, including consultation and limitations on its frequency, is an important part of future-proofing the regime. New information—for example, resulting from parliamentary scrutiny or technological developments—may require the Government to clarify the intent of the legislation.

Amendments 258 to 260 would require the guidance to be subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament. Currently, Ofcom must be consulted, and any guidance must be laid before Parliament. The Bill does not subject the guidance to a parliamentary procedure because the guidance does not create any statutory requirements, and Ofcom is required only to have had regard to it. We think that remains the right approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has made clear his intention to question Clause 156, which grants the Secretary of State the power to direct Ofcom’s media literacy activity only in special circumstances. This ensures that the regulatory framework is equipped to respond to significant future threats—for example, to the health or safety of the public, or to national security. I have already set out, in relation to other amendments, why we think it is right that the Secretary of State can direct Ofcom in these circumstances.

The delegated powers in the Bill are crucial to ensuring that the regulatory regime keeps pace with changes in this area. Amendment 290 from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, would go beyond the existing legislative process for these powers, by potentially providing for additional committees to be, in effect, inserted into the secondary legislative process. Established committees themselves are able to decide whether to scrutinise parts of a regime in more detail, so I do not think they need a Parkinson rule to do that.

Noble Lords have expressed a common desire to see this legislation implemented as swiftly as possible, so I hope they share our wariness of any amendments which could slow that process down. The process as envisaged in this amendment is an open-ended one, which could delay implementation. Of course, however, it is important that Parliament is able to scrutinise the work of the regulator. Like most other regulators, Ofcom is accountable to Parliament on how it exercises its functions. The Secretary of State is required to present its annual report and accounts before both Houses. Ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must also lay a copy of the report before their respective Parliament or Assembly. Moreover, the officers of Ofcom can be required to appear before Select Committees to answer questions about its operations on an annual basis. Parliament will also have a role in approving a number of aspects of the regulatory framework through its scrutiny of both the primary and secondary legislation. This will include the priority categories for harms and Ofcom’s codes of practice.

More broadly, we want to ensure that this ground-breaking legislation has the impact we intend. Ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of it will be crucial to help to ensure that. There is so much expertise in both Houses, and it has already helped to improve this legislation, through the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, the DCMS Select Committee in another place and, of course, your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee.

As my noble friend Lady Stowell said, we must guard against fragmentation and duplication, which we are very mindful of. Although we do not intend to legislate for a new committee—as I set out on previous occasions, including at Second Reading and before the Communications and Digital Committee—we remain happy to discuss possible mechanisms for oversight to ensure that we make best use of the expertise in both Houses of Parliament so that the Bill delivers what we want. With that, I hope that Members of the Committee will be happy to continue the discussions in this area and not press their amendments.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comprehensive response and for the welcome change in tone and the openness to further debate and discussions. I thank all those who spoke in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, was right: we are getting into a routine where we know roughly where our places are and, if we have contributions to make, we make them in the right order and make them comprehensive. We did our bit quite well, but I am afraid that the Minister’s response made me a bit confused. As I said, I welcome the change of tone, the sense of engagement with some of the issues and the ability to meet to discuss ways forward in some of those areas. But he then systematically and rather depressingly shut off just about everything that I thought we were going to discuss. I may be overstating that, so I will read Hansard carefully to make sure that there are still chinks of light in his hitherto impenetrable armour. I really must stop using these metaphors— I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, had managed to get me off the hook with her question about whether we were an island of concrete rock, and about whether the boat was going to end up in the stormy sea that we were creating. I decided that I could not follow that, so I will not.

We ought to take forward and address three things, which I will briefly go through in the response. One that we did not nail down was the good point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that we had focused on regulatory structures in the form of set bodies relating—or not relating—to parliamentary procedures and to Ministers and their operations. She pointed out that, actually, the whole system has a possible drag effect that we also need to think about. I note that good point because we probably need a bit of time to think about how that would work in the structures that come forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan, said that we are trying to look at the changing of the accountability model. I disagree with the word “changing” because we are not trying to change anything; we have a model that works, but the new factor that we are trying to accommodate is the intensity of interaction and, as we said, the amplification that comes from the internet. I worry that this was not being picked up enough in the Minister’s response, but we will pick it up later and see if we can get through it.

The three points I wanted to make sure of were as follows. Following the line taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, one point is on trying to find a proper balance between the independence of the regulator; the Secretary of State’s right, as an elected leader of this aspect of the Government, to make recommendations and proposals to that regulator on how the system can be better; and Parliament’s ability to find a place in that structure, which is still eluding us a little, so we will need to spend more time on it. There is enough there to be reassured that we will find a way of balancing the independence of the regulator and the role of the Secretary of State. It does not need as many mentions in the legislation as it currently has. There is clearly a need for the Secretary of State to be able to issue direction in cases of national security et cetera—but it is the “et cetera” that I worry about: what are these instances? Until they are nailed down and in the Bill, there has to be a question about that.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, about half an hour ago I decided I would not speak, but as we have now got to this point, I thought I might as well say what I was going to say after all. I reassure noble Lords that in Committee it is perfectly permissible to speak after the winder, so no one is breaking any procedural convention. That said, I will be very brief.

My first purpose in rising is to honour a commitment I made last week when I spoke against the violence against women and girls code. I said that I would none the less be more sympathetic to and supportive of stronger restrictions preventing child access to pornography, so I want to get my support on the record and honour that commitment in this context.

My noble friend Lady Harding spoke on the last group about bringing our previous experiences to bear when contributing to some of these issues. As I may have said in the context of other amendments earlier in Committee, as a former regulator, I know that one of the important guiding principles is to ensure that you regulate for a reason. It is very easy for regulators to have a set of rules. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, referred to rules of the road for the tech companies to follow. It is very easy for regulators to examine whether those rules are being followed and, having decided that they have, to say that they have discharged their responsibility. That is not good enough. There must be a result, an outcome from that. As the noble Lord, Lord Allan, emphasised, this must be about outcomes and intended benefits.

I support making it clear in the Bill that, as my noble friend Lady Harding said, we are trying to prevent, disproportionately, children accessing pornography. We will do all we can to ensure that it happens, and that should be because of the rules being in place. Ofcom should be clear on that. However, I also support a proportionate approach to age assurance in all other contexts, as has been described. Therefore, I support the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lord Bethell, and the role my noble friend Lady Harding has played in arriving at a pragmatic solution.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to be in your Lordships’ House, and on some occasions it all comes together and we experience a series of debates and discussions that we perhaps would never have otherwise reached, and at a level which I doubt could be echoed anywhere else in the world. This is one of those days. We take for granted that every now and again, we get one of these rapturous occasions when everything comes together, but we forget the cost of that. I pay tribute, as others have, to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. She has worked so hard on this issue and lots of other issues relating to this Bill and has exhausted herself more times than is right for someone of her still youthful age. I am very pleased that she is going off on holiday and will not be with us for a few days; I wish her well. I am joking slightly, but I mean it sincerely when I say that we have had a very high-quality debate. That it has gone on rather later than the Whips would have wanted is tough, because it has been great to hear and be part of. However, I will be brief.

It was such a good debate that I felt a tension, in that everybody wanted to get in and say what they wanted to say be sure they were on the record. That can sometimes be a disaster, because everyone repeats everything, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said, we know our roles, we know what to say and when to say it, and it has come together very nicely. Again, we should congratulate ourselves on that. However, we must be careful about something which we keep saying to each other but sometimes do not do. This is a Bill about systems, not content. The more that we get into the content issues, the more difficult it is to remember what the Bill can do and what the regulator will be able to do if we get the Bill to the right place. We must be sure about that.

I want to say just a few things about where we need to go with this. As most noble Lords have said, we need certainty: if we want to protect our children, we have to be able to identify them. We should not be in any doubt about that; there is no doubt that we must do it, whatever it takes. The noble Lord, Lord Allan, is right to say that we are in the midst of an emerging set of technologies, and there will be other things coming down the line. The Bill must keep open to that; it must not be technology-specific, but we must be certain of what this part is about, and it must drill down to that. I come back to the idea of proportionality: we want everybody who is 18 or under to be identifiable as such, and we want to be absolutely clear about that. I like the idea that this should be focused on the phones and other equipment we use; if we can get to that level, it will be a step forward, although I doubt whether we are there yet.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, set out at the beginning of this debate, the amendments in this group have involved extensive discussions among Members in both Houses of Parliament, who sit on all sides of both Houses. I am very grateful for the way noble Lords and Members in another place have done that. They have had those preliminary discussions so that our discussions in the debate today and in preparation for it could be focused and detailed. I pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friends Lord Bethell and Lady Harding, who have been involved in extensive discussions with others and then with us in government. These have been very helpful indeed; they continue, and I am happy to commit to their continuing.

Age-assurance technologies will play an important role in supporting the child safety duties in this Bill. This is why reference is made to them on the face of the Bill—to make it clear that the Government expect these measures to be used for complying with the duties to protect children from harmful content and activity online. Guidance under Clause 48 will already cover pornographic content. While this is not currently set out in the legislation, the Government intend, as noble Lords know, to designate pornographic content as a category of primary priority content which is harmful to children. As I set out to your Lordships’ House during our debate on harms to children, we will amend the Bill on Report to list the categories of primary and primary priority content on the face of the Bill.

I am very grateful to noble Lords for the engagement we have had on some of the points raised in Amendments 142 and 306 in recent weeks. As we have been saying in those discussions, the Government are confident that the Bill already largely achieves the outcomes sought here, either through existing provisions in it or through duties in other legislation, including data protection legislation, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. That is why we think that re-stating duties on providers which are already set out in the Bill, or repeating duties set out in other legislation, risks causing uncertainty, and why we need to be careful about imposing specific timelines on Ofcom by which it must produce age-assurance guidance. It is essential that we protect Ofcom’s ability robustly to fulfil its consultation duties for the codes of practice. If Ofcom is given insufficient time to fulfil these duties, the risk of legal challenge being successful is increased.

I welcome Ofcom’s recent letter to your Lordships, outlining its implementation road map, which I hope provides some reassurance directly from the regulator on this point. Ofcom will prioritise protecting children from pornography and other harmful content. It intends to publish, this autumn, draft guidance for Part 5 pornography duties and draft codes of practice for Part 3 illegal content duties, including for child sexual exploitation and abuse content. Draft codes of practice for children’s safety duties will follow next summer. These elements of the regime are being prioritised ahead of others, such as the category 1 duties, to reflect the critical importance of protecting children.

Although we believe that the Bill already largely achieves the outcomes sought, we acknowledge the importance of ensuring that there are clear principles for Ofcom to apply when recommending or requiring the use of age-assurance technologies. I am happy to reassure noble Lords that the Government will continue to consider this further and are happy to continue our engagement on this issue, although any amendment must be made in a way that sits alongside existing legislation and within the framework of the Bill.

I turn to Amendments 161 and 183. First, I will take the opportunity to address some confusion about the requirements in Parts 3 and 5 of the Bill. The Bill ensures that companies must prevent children accessing online pornography, regardless of whether it is regulated in Part 3 or Part 5. The Government are absolutely clear on this point; anything less would be unacceptable. The most effective approach to achieving this is to focus on the outcome of preventing children accessing harmful content, which is what the Bill does. If providers do not prevent children accessing harmful content, Ofcom will be able to bring enforcement action against them.

I will address the point raised by my noble friend Lord Bethell about introducing a standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” for age verification for pornography. As my noble friend knows, we think this a legally unsuitable test which would require Ofcom to determine the state of mind of the provider, which would be extremely hard to prove and would therefore risk allowing providers to evade their duties. A clear, objective duty is the best way to ensure that Ofcom can enforce compliance effectively. The Bill sets clear outcomes which Ofcom will be able to take action on if these are not achieved by providers. A provider will be compliant only if it puts in place systems and processes which meet the objective requirements of the child safety duties.

The provisions in the Bill on proportionality are important to ensure that the requirements in the child safety duties are tailored to the size and capacity of providers. Smaller providers or providers with less capacity are still required to meet the child safety duties where their services pose a risk to children. They will need to put in place sufficiently stringent systems and processes that reflect the level of risk on their services and will need to make sure these systems and processes achieve the required outcomes of the child safety duties.

The Government expect companies to use age-verification technologies to prevent children accessing services which pose the highest risk of harm to children, such as online pornography. However, companies may use another approach if it is proportionate to the findings of the child safety risk assessment and a provider’s size and capacity. This is an important element to ensure that the regulatory framework remains risk-based and proportionate.

Age verification may not always be the most appropriate or effective approach for user-to-user companies to comply with their duties. For example, if a user-to-user service such as a social medium does not allow—

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I am sorry to interrupt. The Minister said that he would bear in mind proportionality in relation to size and capacity. Is that not exactly the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, was trying to make? In relation to children, why will that be proportionate? A single child being damaged in this way is too much.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The issue was in relation to a provider’s size and capacity; it is an issue of making sure it is effective and enforceable, and proportionate to the size of the service in question. It may also not be the most effective approach for companies to follow to comply with their duties. If there is a company such as a user-to-user service in social media that says it does not allow pornography under its terms of service, measures such as content moderation and user reporting might be more appropriate and effective for protecting children than age verification in those settings. That would allow content to be better detected and taken down, while—

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I understand that, but it is an important point to try to get on the record. It is an outcome-based solution that we are looking for, is it not? We are looking for zero activity where risks to children are there. Clearly, if the risk assessment is that there is no risk that children can be on that site, age verification may not be required— I am extending it to make a point—but, if there is a risk, we need to know that the outcome of that process will be zero. That is my point, and I think we should reflect on that.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am very happy to, and the noble Lord is right that we must be focused on the outcomes here. I am very sympathetic to the desire to make sure that providers are held to the highest standards, to keep children protected from harmful content online.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Viscount Camrose Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (Viscount Camrose) (Con)
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As ever, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I absolutely take, accept and embrace the point that transparency is wholly critical to what we are trying to achieve with the Bill. Indeed, the chandelier of transparency reports should be our shared aim—a greenhouse maybe. I am grateful for everyone’s contributions to the debate. I agree entirely with the views expressed. Transparency is vital in holding companies to account for keeping their users safe online. As has been pointed out, it is also to the benefit of the platforms themselves. Confident as I am that we share the same objectives, I would like to try to reassure noble Lords on a number of issues that have been raised.

Amendments 160A, 160B and 181A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, seek to require providers to make their transparency reports publicly available, subject to appropriate redactions, and to allow Ofcom to prevent their publication where it deems that the risks posed by drawing attention to illegal content outweigh the benefit to the public of the transparency report. Let me reassure the noble Lord that the framework, we strongly believe, already achieves the aim of those amendments. As set out in Clause 68, Ofcom will specify a range of requirements in relation to transparency reporting in a notice to categories 1, 2A and 2B. This will include the kind of information that is required in the transparency report and the manner in which it should be published. Given the requirement to publish the information, this already achieves the intention of Amendment 160A.

The specific information requested for inclusion within the transparency report will be determined by Ofcom. Therefore, the regulator will be able to ensure that the information requested is appropriate for publication. Ofcom will take into account any risks arising from making the information public before issuing the transparency notice. Ofcom will have separate information-gathering powers, which will enable the regulator to access information that is not suitable to be published in the public domain. This achieves the intention of Amendment 160B. There is also a risk of reducing trust in transparency reporting if there is a mechanism for Ofcom to prevent providers publishing their transparency reports.

Amendment 181A would require Ofcom to issue guidance on what information should be redacted and how this should be done. However, Ofcom is already required to produce guidance about transparency reports, which may include guidance about what information should be redacted and how to do this. It is important to provide the regulator with the flexibility to develop appropriate guidance.

Amendment 165 seeks to expand the information within the transparency reporting requirements to cover the scope of the terms of service set out by user-to-user providers. I very much agree with the noble Lord that it is important that Ofcom can request information about the scope of terms of service, as well as about their application. Our view is that the Bill already achieves this. Schedule 8 sets out the high-level matters about which information may be required. This includes information about how platforms are complying with their duties. The Bill will place duties on user-to-user providers to ensure that any required terms of service are clear and accessible. This will require platforms to set out what the terms of service cover—or, in other words, the scope. While I hope that this provides reassurance on the matter, if there are still concerns in spite of what I have said, I am very happy to look at this. Any opportunity to strengthen the Bill through that kind of clarity is worth looking at.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I welcome the Minister’s comments. I am interrupting just because this is my amendment rather than my noble friend Lord Knight’s. The word “scope” caused us some disquiet on this Bench when we were trying to work out what we meant by it. It has been fleshed out in slightly different ways around the Chamber, to advantage.

I go back to the original intention—I am sorry for the extensive introduction, but it is to make sure that I focus the question correctly—which was to make sure that we are not looking historically at the terms of reference that have been issued, and whether they are working in a transparency mode, but addressing the question of what is missing or is perhaps not addressed properly. Does the Minister agree that that would be taken in by the word “scope”?

Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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I think I probably would agree, but I would welcome a chance to discuss it further.

Finally, Amendment 229 intends to probe how Ofcom will review the effectiveness of transparency requirements in the Bill. It would require Ofcom to produce reports reviewing the effectiveness of transparency reports and would give the Secretary of State powers to implement any recommendations made by the regulator. While I of course agree with the sentiment of this amendment, as I have outlined, the transparency reporting power is designed to ensure that Ofcom can continuously review the effectiveness of transparency reports and make adjustments as necessary. This is why the Bill requires Ofcom to set out in annual transparency notices what each provider should include in its reports and the format and manner in which it should be presented, rather than putting prescriptive or static requirements in the Bill. That means that Ofcom will be able to learn, year on year, what will be most effective.

Under Clause 145, Ofcom is required to produce its own annual transparency report, which must include a summary of conclusions drawn from providers’ transparency reports, along with the regulator’s view on industry best practice and other appropriate information—I hope and think that goes to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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I absolutely take what the noble Lord is saying, and I am not saying that the platforms do not have responsibility. Of course they do: the whole Bill is about the platforms taking responsibility with risk assessment, adhering to their terms of service, transparency about how those terms are operating, et cetera. It is purely on the question of whether they need to be reporting that content when it occurs. They have takedown responsibilities for illegal content or content that may be seen by children and so on, but it is about whether they have the duty to report to the police. It may seem a relatively narrow point, but it is quite important that we go with the framework. Many of us have said many times that we regret the absence of “legal but harmful” but, given where we are, we basically have to go with that architecture.

I very much enjoyed listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. There is no opportunity lost in the course of the Bill to talk about ChatGPT or GPT-4, and that was no exception. It means that we need to listen to how young people are responding to the way that this legislation operates. I am fully in favour of whatever mechanism it may be. It does not need to be statutory, but I very much hope that we do not treat this just as the end of the process but will see how the Bill works out and will listen and learn from experience, and particularly from young people who are particularly vulnerable to much of the content, and the way that the algorithms on social media work.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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I am so sorry. With due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, reminded me that his Amendments 202ZA and 210A, late entrants into the miscellaneous group, go very much with the grain that we are trying to get in within the area of encryption. We had quite a long debate about encryption on Clause 110. As ever, the noble Lord has rather cunningly produced something that I think will get us through the eye of the free speech needle. They are two very cunning amendments.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I thank the noble Lord for that. Free expression, my Lords, not free speech.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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Freedom of expression.

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Yes, freedom of expression. That is right.

I will start where the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, finished, although I want to come back and cover other things. This is a very complicated group. I do not think we can do it quickly, as each issue is important and is worth trying to take forward.

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Let me turn now to the cunning amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which seek to introduce special provisions to apply in cases where a notice issued under Clause 110 would involve the monitoring of journalistic material or material identifying journalistic sources. I appreciate the way he has set those out and I am very happy to have the more detailed discussion with the Bill team that he suggested. Let me just say, though, that the Government are fully committed to protecting the integrity of journalistic material and there is no intention that the technologies required under Clause 110 in relation to private communications would identify anything other than child sexual abuse and exploitation content. These powers are subject to strong safeguards to protect the privacy of all users. Any technologies required on private communications must be accredited by Ofcom as being highly accurate in detecting only child sexual exploitation and abuse content. These minimum standards of accuracy will be approved and published by the Secretary of State following advice from Ofcom and will ensure that it is highly unlikely that journalistic material that is not such content would be erroneously flagged or removed.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I am sorry to interrupt. The Minister has twice given a positive response, but he limited it to child sexual exploitation; he did not mention terrorism, which is in fact the bigger issue. Could he confirm that it is both?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, and as I say, I am happy to talk with the noble Lord about this in greater detail. Under the Bill, category 1 companies will have a new duty to safeguard all journalistic content on their platform, which includes citizen journalism. But I will have to take all these points forward with him in our further discussions.

My noble friend Lord Bethell is not here to move his Amendment 220D, which would allow Ofcom to designate online safety regulatory duties under this legislation to other bodies. We have previously discussed a similar issue relating to the Internet Watch Foundation, so I shall not repeat the points that we have already made.

On the amendments on supposedly gendered language in relation to Ofcom advisory committees in Clauses 139 and 155, I appreciate the intention to make it clear that a person of either sex should be able to perform the role of chairman. The Bill uses the term “chairman” to be consistent with the terminology in the Office of Communications Act 2002, and we are confident that this will have no bearing on Ofcom’s decision-making on who will chair the advisory committees that it must establish, just as, I am sure, the noble Lord’s Amendment 56 does not seek to be restrictive about who might be an “ombudsman”.

I appreciate the intention of Amendment 262 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. It is indeed vital that the review reflects the experience of young people. Clause 159 provides for a review to be undertaken by the Secretary of State, and published and laid before Parliament, to assess the effectiveness of the regulatory framework. There is nothing in the existing legislation that would preclude seeking the views of young people either as part of an advisory group or in other ways. Moreover, the Secretary of State is required to consult Ofcom and other persons she considers appropriate. In relation to young people specifically, it may be that a number of different approaches will be effective—for example, consulting experts or representative groups on children’s experiences online. That could include people of all ages. The regulatory framework is designed to protect all users online, and it is right that we take into account the full spectrum of views from people who experience harms, whatever their age and background, through a consultation process that balances all their interests.

Amendment 268AA from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, relates to reporting requirements for online abuse and harassment, including where this is racially motivated—an issue we have discussed in Questions and particularly in relation to sport. His amendment would place an additional requirement on all service providers, even those not in scope of the Bill. The Bill’s scope extends only to user-to-user and search services. It has been designed in this way to tackle the risk of harm to users where it is highest. Bringing additional companies in scope would dilute the efforts of the legislation in this important regard.

Clauses 16 and 26 already require companies to set up systems and processes that allow users easily to report illegal content, including illegal online abuse and harassment. This amendment would therefore duplicate this existing requirement. It also seeks to create an additional requirement for companies to report illegal online abuse and harassment to the Crown Prosecution Service. The Bill does not place requirements on in-scope companies to report their investigations into crimes that occur online, other than child exploitation and abuse. This is because the Bill aims to prevent and reduce the proliferation of illegal material and the resulting harm it causes to so many. Additionally, Ofcom will be able to require companies to report on the incidence of illegal content on their platforms in its transparency reports, as well as the steps they are taking to tackle that content.

I hope that reassures the noble Lord that the Bill intends to address the problems he has outlined and those explored in the exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. With that, I hope that noble Lords will support the government amendments in this group and be satisfied not to press theirs at this point.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, I am going to be extremely brief given the extremely compelling way that these amendments have been introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and contributed to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I thank her for her comments about my noble friend Lady Parminter. I am sure she would have wanted to be here and would have made a very valuable contribution as she did the other day on exactly this subject.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has illustrated, we have a very different view of risk across this Committee and we are back, in a sense, into that whole area of risk. I just wanted to say that I think we are again being brought back to the very wise words of the Joint Committee. It may sound like special pleading. We keep coming back to this, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and I are the last people standing on a Thursday afternoon.

We took a lot of evidence in this particular area. We took the trouble to go to Brussels and had a very useful discussion with the Centre on Regulation in Europe and Dr Sally Broughton Micova. We heard a lot about interconnectedness between some of these smaller services and the impact in terms of amplification across other social media sites.

We heard in the UK from some of the larger services about their concerns about the activities of smaller services. You might say “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” but they were pretty convincing. We heard from HOPE not Hate, the Antisemitism Policy Trust and Stonewall, stressing the role of alternative services.

Of course, we know that these amendments today—some of them sponsored by the Mental Health Foundation, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said, and Samaritans—have a very important provenance. They recognise that these are big problems. I hope that the Minister will think strongly about this. The injunction from the noble Lord, Lord Allan, to consider how all this is going to work in practice is very important. I very much hope that when we come to consider how this works in practical terms that the Minister will think very seriously about the way in which risk is to the fore— the more nuanced approach that we suggested—and the whole way that profiling by Ofcom will apply. I think that is going to be extremely important as well. I do not think we have yet got to the right place in the Bill which deals with these risky sites. I very much hope that the Minister will consider this in the quite long period between now and when we next get together.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a good little debate with some excellent speeches, which I acknowledge. Like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I was looking at the Joint Committee’s report. I concluded that one of the first big issues we discussed was how complicated the categorisation seemed in relation to the task that was being set for Ofcom. We comforted ourselves with the thought that if you believe that this is basically a risk-assessment exercise and that all the work Ofcom will subsequently do is driven by its risk assessments and its constant reviewing of them, then the categorisation is bound to fall down because the risks will reveal the things that need to happen.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to noble Lords for helping us to reach our target for the first time in this Committee, especially to do so in a way which has given us a good debate on which to send us off into the Whitson Recess. I am off to the Isle of Skye, so I will make a special detour to Balmacara in honour of the noble Lord.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The noble Lord does not believe anything that I say at this Dispatch Box, but I will send a postcard.

As noble Lords are by now well aware, all services in scope of the Bill, regardless of their size, will be required to take action against illegal content and all services likely to be accessed by children must put in place protections for children. Companies designated as category 1 providers have significant additional duties. These include the overarching transparency, accountability and freedom of expression duties, as well as duties on content of democratic importance, news publishers’ content, journalistic content and fraudulent advertising. It is right to put such duties only on the largest platforms with features enabling the greatest reach, as they have the most significant influence over public discourse online.

I turn first to Amendment 192 in the name of my noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes and Amendment 192A from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, which are designed to widen category 1 definitions to include services that pose a risk of harm, regardless of their number of users. Following removal of the legal but harmful provisions in another place, the Bill no longer includes the concept of risk of harm in Category 1 designation. As we set out, it would not be right for the Government to define what legal content it considers harmful to adults, and it follows that it would not be appropriate for the Government to categorise providers and to require them to carry out duties based on this definition.

In addition, requiring all companies to comply with the full range of Category 1 duties would pose a disproportionate burden on services which do not exert the same influence over public discourse online. I appreciate the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, with regard to regulatory burden. There is a practical element to this as well. Services, particularly smaller ones, have finite resources. Imposing additional duties on them would divert them from complying with their illegal and child safety duties, which address the most serious online harms. We do not want to weaken their ability to tackle criminal activity or to protect children.

As we discussed in detail in a previous debate, the Bill tackles suicide and self-harm content in a number of ways. The most robust protections in the Bill are for children, while those for adults strike a balance between adults being protected from illegal content and given more choice over what legal content they see. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked why we do not start with the highest risk rather than thinking about the largest services, but we do. We start with the most severe harms—illegal activity and harm to children. We are focusing on the topics of greatest risk and then, for other categories, allowing adults to make decisions about the content with which they interact online.

A number of noble Lords referred to suicide websites and fora. We are concerned about the widespread availability of content online which promotes and advertises methods of suicide and self-harm, which can be easily accessed by young or vulnerable people. Under the Bill, where suicide and self-harm websites host user-generated content, they will be in scope of the legislation. These sites will need proactively to prevent users from being exposed to priority illegal content, including content which encourages or assists suicide under the terms of the Suicide Act 1961. Additionally, it is an offence under Section 4(3) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for a website to offer to sell controlled drugs to consumers in England and Wales. Posting advice on how to obtain such drugs in England and Wales is also likely to be an offence, regardless of where the person providing the advice is located.

The Bill also limits the availability of such content by placing illegal content duties on search services, including harmful content which affects children or where this content is shared on user-to-user services. This will play a key role in reducing traffic that directs people to websites which encourage or assist suicide, and reduce the likelihood of users encountering such content. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, asked about starvation. Encouraging people to starve themselves or not to take prescribed medication will be covered.

Amendment 194 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, seeks to ensure that Ofcom can designate companies as category 1, 2A or 2B on a provisional basis, when it considers that they are likely to meet the relevant thresholds. This would mean that the relevant duties can be applied to them, pending a full assessment by Ofcom. The Government recognise the concern highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, about the rapid pace of change in the technology sector and how that can make it challenging to keep the register of the largest and most influential services up to date. I assure noble Lords that the Bill addresses this with a duty which the Government introduced during the Bill’s recommittal in another place. This duty, at Clause 88, requires Ofcom proactively to identify and publish a list of companies which are close to category 1 thresholds. This will reduce any delays in Ofcom adding additional obligations on companies which grow rapidly, or which introduce new high-risk features. It will also ensure that the regime remains agile and adaptable to emerging threats.

Platforms with the largest reach and greatest influence over public discourse will be designated as category 1. The Bill sets out a clear process for determining category 1 providers, based on thresholds relating to these criteria, which will be set by the Secretary of State in secondary legislation. The process has been designed to ensure that it is transparent and evidence-based. We expect the main social media platforms and possibly some others to be designated as category 1 services, but we do not wish to prejudge the process set out above by indicating which specific services are likely to be designated, as I have set out on previous groups.

The amendment would enable Ofcom to place new duties on companies without due process. Under the approach that we take in the Bill, Ofcom can designate companies as belonging to each category based only on an objective assessment of evidence against thresholds approved by Parliament. The Government’s approach also provides greater certainty for companies, as is proposed in this amendment. We have heard concerns in previous debates about when companies will have the certainty of knowing their category designation. These amendments would introduce continuous uncertainty and subjectivity into the designation process and would give Ofcom significant discretion over which companies should be subject to which duties. That would create a very uncertain operating environment for businesses and could reduce the attractiveness of the UK as a place to do business.

I hope that explains why we are not taken by these amendments but, in the spirit of the Whitsun Recess, I will certainly think about them on the train as I head north. I am very happy to discuss them with noble Lords and others between now and our return.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Before the Minister sits down, he did let slip that he was going on the sleeper, so I do not think that there will be much thinking going on—although I did not sleep a wink the last time I went, so I am sure that he will have plenty of time.

I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, will want to come in—but could he repeat that again? Risk assessment drives us, but the risk assessment for a company that will not be regarded as a category 1 provider because it does not meet categorisation thresholds means that, even though it is higher risk than perhaps even some of the category 1 companies, it will not be subject to the requirements to pick up the particular issues raised by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, and their concerns for those issues, which are clearly social harms, will not really be considered on a par.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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In the response I gave, I said that we are making the risk assessment that the riskiest behaviour is illegal content and content which presents a harm to children. That is the assessment and the approach taken in the Bill. In relation to other content which is legal and for adults to choose how they encounter it, there are protections in the Bill to enforce terms of service and empower users to curate their own experience online, but that assessment is made by adult users within the law.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, I too must declare my interests on the register—I think that is the quickest way of doing it to save time. We still have time, and I very much hope that the Minister will listen to this debate and consider it. Although we are considering clauses that, by and large, come at the end of the Bill, there is still time procedurally—if the Minister so decides—to come forward with an amendment later on Report or at Third Reading.

We have heard some very convincing arguments today. My noble friend explained that the Minister did not like the DPP solution. I have looked back again at the Law Commission report, and I cannot for the life of me see the distinction between what was proposed for the offence in its report and what is proposed by the Government. There is a cigarette paper, if we are still allowed to use that analogy, between them, but the DPP is recommended—perhaps not on a personal basis, although I do not know quite what distinction is made there by the Law Commission, but certainly the Minister clearly did not like that. My noble friend has come back with some specifics, and I very much hope that the Minister will put on the record that, in those circumstances, there would not be a prosecution. As we heard in Committee, 130 different organisations had strong concerns, and I hope that the Minister will respond to those concerns.

As regards my other noble friend’s amendment, again creatively she has come back with a proposal for including reckless behaviour. The big problem here is that many people believe that, unless you include “reckless” or “consent”, the “for a laugh” defence operates. As the Minister knows, quite expert advice has been had on this subject. I hope the Minister continues his discussions. I very much support my noble friend in this respect. I hope he will respond to her in respect of timing and monitoring—the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, mentioned the need for the issue to be kept under review—even if at the end of the day he does not respond positively with an amendment.

Everybody believes that we need a change of culture—even the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, clearly recognises that—but the big difference is whether or not we believe that these particular amendments should be made. We very much welcome what the Law Commission proposed and what the Government have put into effect, but the question at the end of day is whether we truly are making illegal online what is illegal offline. That has always been the Government’s test. We must be mindful of that in trying to equate online behaviour with offline behaviour. I do not believe that we are there yet, however much moral leadership we are exhorted to display. I very much take the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, about the violence against women and girls amendment that the Government are coming forward with. I hope that will have a cultural change impact as well.

As regards the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, I very much take the point she made, both at Committee and on Report. She was very specific, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, and was very clear about the impact, which as men we severely underestimate if we do not listen to what she said. I was slightly surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, really underestimates the impact of that kind of abuse—particularly that kind of indirect abuse.

I was interested in what the Minister had to say in Committee:

“In relation to the noble Baroness’s Amendment 268, the intentional encouragement or assistance of a criminal offence is already captured under Sections 44 to 46 of the Serious Crime Act 2007”.—[Official Report, 22/6/23; col. 424.]


Is that still the Government's position? Has that been explained to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, who I would have thought was pretty expert in the 2007 Act? If she does not agree with the Minister, that is a matter of some concern.

Finally, I agree that we need to consider the points raised at the outset by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and I very much hope that the Government will keep that under review.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been an interesting debate that in a curious way moves us from the debate on the first group, which was about the high level of aspiration for this Bill, for the work of those involved in it and indeed for Parliament as a whole, down to some of the nitty-gritty points that emerge from some of the Bill’s proposals. I am very much looking forward to the Minister’s response.

In a sense, where the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, ends, I want to start. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, did a good job of introducing the points made previously by his colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, in relation to those unfortunate exercises of public comment on businesses, and indeed individuals, that have no reason to receive them. There does not seem to be a satisfactory sanction for that. In a sense he was drawn by the overarching nature of Clause 1, but I think we have established between us that Clause 1 does not have legal effect in the way that he would like, so we would probably need to move further forward. The Government probably need to pick up his points in relation to some of the issues that are raised further down, because they are in fact not dissimilar and could be dealt with.

The key issue is the one that my noble friend Lady Kennedy ended on, in the sense that the law online and the law offline, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seem to be at variance about what you can and cannot do in relation to threats issued, whether or not they are general, to a group or groups in society. This is a complex area that needs further thought of the nature that has been suggested, and may well refer back to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. There is something here that we are not tackling correctly. I look forward to the Government’s response. We would support movement in that area should that agreement be made.

Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Russell, whom I am tempted to call my noble friend because he is a friend, has just moved out of his seat—I do not need to give him a namecheck any more—but he and I went to a meeting yesterday, I think, although I have lost track of time. It was called by Luke Pollard MP and related to the incel movement or, as the meeting concluded, what we should call the alleged incel movement, because by giving it a name we somehow give it a position. I wanted to make that point because a lot of what we are talking about here is in the same territory. It was an informal research-focused meeting to hear all the latest research being done on the group of activities going under the name of the alleged incel movement.

I mention that because it plays into a lot of the discussion here. The way in which those who organise it do so—the name Andrew Tate has already been mentioned—was drawn into the debate in a much broader context by that research, particularly because representatives from the Home Office made the interesting point that the process by which the young men who are involved in this type of activity are groomed to join groups and are told that by doing so they are establishing a position that has been denied to them by society in general, and allegedly by women in particular, is very similar to the methods used by those who are cultivating terrorism activity. That may seem to be a big stretch but it was convincing, and the argument and debate around that certainly said to me that there are things operating within the world of social media, with its ability to reach out to those who often feel alone, even if they are not, and who feel ignored, and to reach them in a way that causes them to overreact in the way they deal with the issues they face.

That point was picked up by others, including my noble friend Lady Kennedy and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, in relation to the way in which the internet itself is in some way gendered against women. I do not in any sense want to apportion blame anywhere for that; it is a much more complex issue than single words can possibly address, but it needs to be addressed. As was said in the meeting and has been said today, there are cultural, educational and holistic aspects here. We really do not tackle the symptoms or the effects of it, but we should also look at what causes people to act in the way they have because of, or through the agency of, the internet.

Having said that, I support the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and I look forward to the Government’s response to them. Amendment 5B raises the issue that it will be detrimental to society if people stop posting and commenting on things because they fear that they will be prosecuted—or not even prosecuted but attacked. The messages that they want to share will be lost as a result, and that is a danger that we do not want to encourage. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response to that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, made powerful points about the way in which the offence of cyberflashing is going to be dealt with, and the differences between that and the intimate image abuse that we are coming on to in the next group. It may well be that this is the right way forward, and indeed we support the Government in the way that they are going, but it is important to recognise her point that we need a test of whether it is working. The Government may well review the impact of the Bill in the normal way of things, but this aspect needs particular attention; we need to know whether there are prosecutions and convictions and whether people understand the implication of the change in practice. We need publicity, as has been said, otherwise it will not be effective in any case. These issues, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, are important. We will have other opportunities to discuss them, but at this stage we should at least get a response to that.

If it is true that in Northern Ireland there is now a different standard for the way in which cyberflashing offences are to be undertaken—taking into account the points made very well by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and the worry about encouraging more offences for which crimes may not necessarily be appropriate at this stage, particularly the one about recklessness—do the Government not have a slight problem here? In the first case, do we really accept that we want differences between the various regions and nations of our country in these important issues? We support devolution but we also need to have a sense of what the United Kingdom as a whole stands for in its relationship with these types of criminal offence, if they are criminal. If that happens, do we need a better understanding of why one part of the country has moved in a particular way, and is that something that we are missing in picking up action that is perhaps necessary in other areas? As my noble friend Lady Kennedy has also said, some of the work she has been doing in Scotland is ahead of the work that we have been doing in this part of the United Kingdom, and we need to pick up the lessons from that as well.

As I said at the beginning, this is an interesting range of amendments. They are not as similar as the grouping might suggest, but they point in a direction that needs government attention, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s comments on them.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friends Lady Buscombe and Lord Leicester and my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier for the amendments that they have tabled, with which we began this helpful debate, as well as for their time earlier this week to discuss them. We had a good debate on this topic in Committee and I had a good discussion with my noble friend Lady Buscombe and my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier on Monday. I will explain why the Government cannot accept the amendments that they have brought forward today.

I understand my noble friends’ concerns about the impact that fake reviews can have on businesses, but the Bill and the criminal offences it contains are not the right place to address this issue. The amendments would broaden the scope of the offences and likely result in overcriminalisation, which I know my noble friends would not want to see.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord Bishop of Oxford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Oxford
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My Lords, I warmly welcome this group of amendments. I am very grateful to the Government for a number of amendments that they are bringing forward at this stage. I want to support this group of amendments, which are clearly all about navigating forward and future-proofing the Bill in the context of the very rapid development of artificial intelligence and other technologies. In responding to this group of amendments, will the Minister say whether he is now content that the Bill is sufficiently future-proofed, given the hugely rapid development of technology, and whether he believes that Ofcom now has sufficient powers to risk assess for the future and respond, supposing that there were further parallel developments in generative AI such as we have seen over the past year?

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, this is a quick-fire debate on matters where most of us probably cannot even understand the words, let alone the purpose and particularity of the amendments. I want to raise points already raised by others: it seems that the Government’s intention is to ensure that the Bill is future-proofed. Why then are they restricting this group to Part 5 only? It follows that, since Part 5 is about pornography, it has to be about only pornography—but it is rather odd that we are not looking at the wider context under which harm may occur, involving things other than simply pornography. While the Bill may well be currently able to deal with the issues that are raised in Part 3 services, does it not need to be extended to that as well? I shall leave it at that. The other services that we have are probably unlikely to raise the sorts of issues of concern that are raised by this group. None the less, it is a point that we need reassurance on.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate, as it is a real contrast. We have one set of amendments which say that the net is too wide and another which say that the net is not wide enough, and I agree with both of them. After all, we are trying to fine-tune the Bill to get it to deal with the proper risks—the word “risk” has come up quite a lot in this debate—that it should. Whether or not we make a specific exemption for public interest services, public information services, limited functionality services or non-commercial services, we need to find some way to deal with the issue raised by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, in their amendments. All of us are Wikipedia users; we all value the service. I particularly appreciated what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron: Wikipedia does not push its content at us—it is not algorithmically based.

What the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said, resonated with me, because I think he has found a thundering great hole in the Bill. This infinite scrolling and autoplay is where the addiction of so much of social media lies, and the Bill absolutely needs systemically and functionally to deal with it. So, on the one hand, we have a service which does not rely on that infinite scrolling and algorithmic type of pushing of content and, on the other hand, we are trying to identify services which have that quality.

I very much hope the Minister is taking all this on board, because on each side we have identified real issues. Whether or not, when we come to the light at the end of the tunnel of Amendment 245 from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, it will solve all our problems, I do not know. All I can say is that I very much hope that the Minister will consider both sets of amendments and find a way through this that is satisfactory to all sides.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, much like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I started off being quite certain I knew what to say about these amendments. I even had some notes—unusual for me, I know—but I had to throw them away, which I always do with my notes, because the arguments have been persuasive. That is exactly why we are here in Parliament discussing things: to try to reach common solutions to difficult problems.

We started with a challenge to the Minister to answer questions about scope, exemptions and discretion in relation to a named service—Wikipedia. However, as the debate went on, we came across the uncomfortable feeling that, having got so far into the Bill and agreed a lot of amendments today improving it, we are still coming up against quite stubborn issues that do not fit neatly into the categorisation and structures that we have. We do not seem to have the right tools to answer the difficult questions before us today, let alone the myriad questions that will come up as the technology advances and new services come in. Why have we not already got solutions to the problems raised by Amendments 281, 281A and 281B?

There is also the rather difficult idea we have from the noble Lord, Lord Russell, of dark patterns, which we need to filter into our thinking. Why does that not fit into what we have got? Why is it that we are still worried about Wikipedia, a service for public good, which clearly has risks in it and is sometimes capable of making terrible mistakes but is definitely a good thing that should not be threatened by having to conform with a structure and a system which we think is capable of dealing with some of the biggest and most egregious companies that are pushing stuff at us in the way that we have talked about?

I have a series of questions which I do not have the answers to. I am looking forward to the Minister riding to my aid on a white charger of enormous proportions and great skill which will take us out without having to fall over any fences.

If I may, I suggest to the Minister a couple of things. First, we are stuck on the word “content”. We will come back to that in the future, as we still have an outstanding problem about exactly where the Bill sets it. Time and again in discussions with the Bill team and with Ministers we have been led back to the question of where the content problem lies and where the harms relate to that, but this little debate has shown beyond doubt that harm can occur independent of and separate from content. We must have a solution to that, and I hope it will be quick.

Secondly, when approaching anybody or anything or any business or any charity that is being considered in scope for this Bill, we will not get there if we are looking only at the question of its size and its reach. We have to look at the risks it causes, and we have to drill down hard into what risks we are trying to deal with using our armoury as we approach these companies, because that is what matters to the children, vulnerable people and adults who would suffer otherwise, and not the question of whether or not these companies are big or small. I think there are solutions to that and we will get there, but, when he comes to respond, the Minister needs to demonstrate to us that he is still willing to listen and think again about one or two issues. I look forward to further discussions with him.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions during this debate. I am sympathetic to arguments that we must avoid imposing disproportionate burdens on regulated services, and particularly that the Bill should not inhibit services from providing valuable information which is of benefit to the public. However, I want to be clear that that is why the Bill has been designed in the way that it has. It has a broad scope in order to capture a range of services, but it has exemptions and categorisations built into it. The alternative would be a narrow scope, which would be more likely inadvertently to exempt risky sites or to displace harm on to services which we would find are out of scope of the Bill. I will disappoint noble Lords by saying that I cannot accept their amendments in this group but will seek to address the concerns that they have raised through them.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan, asked me helpfully at the outset three questions, to which the answers are yes, no and maybe. Yes, Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap will be in scope of the Bill because they allow users to interact online; no, we do not believe that they would fall under any of the current exemptions in the Bill; and the maybe is that Ofcom does not have the discretion to exempt services but the Secretary of State can create additional exemptions for further categories of services if she sees fit.

I must also say maybe to my noble friend Lord Moylan on his point about Wikipedia—and with good reason. Wikipedia, as I have just explained, is in scope of the Bill and is not subject to any of its exemptions. I cannot say how it will be categorised, because that is based on an assessment made by the independent regulator, but I reassure my noble friend that it is not the regulator but the Secretary of State who will set the categorisation thresholds through secondary legislation; that is to say, a member of the democratically elected Government, accountable to Parliament, through legislation laid before that Parliament. It will then be for Ofcom to designate services based on whether or not they meet those thresholds.

It would be wrong—indeed, nigh on impossible—for me to second-guess that designation process from the Dispatch Box. In many cases it is inherently a complex and nuanced matter since, as my noble friend Lady Harding said, many services change over time. We want to keep the Bill’s provisions flexible as services change what they do and new services are invented.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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I shall be brief, my Lords, because I know we have a Statement to follow. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Russell. I certainly share his concern about the rise of incel culture, and this is a very appropriate point to raise it.

This is all about choices and the Minister, in putting forward his amendments, in response not only to the Joint Committee but the overwhelming view in Committee on the Bill that this was the right thing to do, has done the right thing. I thank him for that, with the qualification that we must make sure that the red and amber lights are used—just as my noble friend Lord Allan and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, qualified their support for what the Minister has done. At the same time, I make absolutely clear that I very much support the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I was a bit too late to get my name down to her amendment, but it would be there otherwise.

I very much took to what the right reverend Prelate had to say about the ethics of the online world and nowhere more should they apply than in respect of children and young people. That is the place where we should apply these ethics, as strongly as we can. With some knowledge of artificial intelligence, how it operates and how it is increasingly operating, I say that what the noble Baroness wants to add to the Minister’s amendment seems to be entirely appropriate. Given the way in which algorithms are operating and the amount of misinformation and disinformation that is pouring into our inboxes, our apps and our social media, this is a very proportionate addition. It is the future. It is already here, in fact. So I very strongly support Amendment 174 from the noble Baroness and I very much hope that after some discussion the Minister will accept it.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, I want to make it very clear that I think the House as a whole welcomes the change of heart by the Government to ensure that we have in the Bill the two sides of the question of content that will be harmful to children. We should not walk away from that. We made a big thing of this in Committee. The Government listened and we have now got it. The fact that we do not like it—or do not like bits of it—is the price we pay for having achieved something which is, probably on balance, good.

The shock comes from trying to work out why it is written the way it is, and how difficult it is to see what it will mean in practice when companies working to Ofcom’s instructions will take this and make this happen in practice. That lies behind, I think I am right in saying, the need for the addition to Amendment 172 from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, which I have signed, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. Both of them have spoken well in support of it and I do not need to repeat those points.

Somehow, in getting the good of Amendments 171 and 172, we have lost the flexibility that we think we want as well to try to get that through. The flexibility does exist, because the Government have retained powers to amend and change both primary priority content that is harmful to children and the primary content. Therefore, subject to approval through the secondary legislation process, this House will continue to have a concern about that—indeed, both Houses will.

Somehow, however, that does not get to quite where the concern comes from. The concern should be both the good points made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell—I should have caught him up in the gap and said I had already mentioned the fact that we had been together at the meeting. He found some additional points to make which I hope will also be useful to future discussion. I am glad he has done that. He is making a very good point in relation to cultural context and the work that needs to go on—which we have talked about in earlier debates—in order to make this live: in other words, to make people who are responsible for delivering this through Ofcom, but also those who are delivering it through companies, to understand the wider context. In that sense, clearly we need the misinformation/disinformation side of that stuff. It is part and parcel of the problems we have got. But more important even than that is the need to see about the functionality issues. We have come back to that. This Bill is about risk. The process that we will be going through is about risk assessment and making sure that the risks are understood by those who deliver services, and the penalties that follow the failure of the risk assessment process delivering change that we want to see in society.

However, it is not just about content. We keep saying that, but we do not see the changes around it. The best thing that could happen today would be if the Minister in responding accepted that these clauses are good—“Tick, we like them”—but could we just not finalise them until we have seen the other half of that, which is: what are the other risks to which those users of services that we have referred to and discussed are receiving through the systemic design processes that are designed to take them in different directions? It is only when we see the two together that we will have a proper concern.

I may have got this wrong, but the only person who can tell us is the Minister because he is the only one who really understands what is going on in the Bill. Am I not right in saying—I am going to say I am right; he will say no, I am not, but I am, aren’t I?—that we will get to Clauses 208 and 209, or the clauses that used to be 208 and 209, one of which deals with harms from content and the other deals with functionality? We may need to look at the way in which those are framed in order to come back and understand better how these lie and how they interact with that. I may have got the numbers wrong—the Minister is looking a bit puzzled, so I probably have—but the sense is that this will probably not come up until day 4. While I do not want to hold back the Bill, we may need to look at some of the issues that are hidden in the interstices of this set of amendments in order to make sure that the totality is better for those who have to use it.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, this has been a useful debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, says, because I spoke first to move the government amendments, in effect I got my response in first to her Amendment 174, the only non-government amendment in the group. That is useful because it allows us to have a deeper debate on it.

The noble Baroness asked about the way that organisations such as the British Board of Film Classification already make assessments of sexualised content. However, the Bill’s requirement on service providers and the process that the BBFC takes to classify content are not really comparable. Services will have far less time and much more content to consider them the BBFC does, so will not be able to take the same approach. The BBFC is able to take an extended time to consider maybe just one scene, one image or one conversation, and therefore can apply nuance to its assessments. That is not possible to do at the scale at which services will have to apply the child safety duties in the Bill. We therefore think there is a real risk that they would excessively apply those duties and adversely affect children’s rights online.

I know the noble Baroness and other noble Lords are rightly concerned with protecting rights to free expression and access to information online for children and for adults. It is important that we strike the right balance, which is what we have tried to do with the government amendments in this group.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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Is he not outrageous, trying to make appeals to one’s good humour and good sense? But I support him.

I will say only three things about this brief but very useful debate. First, I welcome the toggle-on, toggle-off resolution: that is a good move. It makes sure that people make a choice and that it is made at an appropriate time, when they are using the service. That seems to be the right way forward, so I am glad that that has come through.

Secondly, I still worry that terms of service, even though there are improved transparency measures in these amendments, will eventually need some form of power for Ofcom to set de minimis standards. So much depends on the ability of the terms of service to carry people’s engagement with the social media companies, including the decisions about what to see and not to see, and about whether they want to stay on or keep off. Without some power behind that, I do not think that the transparency will take it. However, we will leave it as it is; it is better than it was before.

Thirdly, user ID is another issue that will come back. I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said: this is at the heart of so much of what is wrong with what we see and perceive as happening on the internet. To reduce scams, to be more aware of trolls and to be aware of misinformation and disinformation, you need some sense of who you are talking to, or who is talking to you. There is a case for having that information verified, whether or not it is done on a limited basis, because we need to protect those who need to have their identities concealed for very good reason—we know all about that. As the noble Lord said, it is popular to think that you would be a safer person on the internet if you were able to identify who you were talking to. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Baroness Morgan of Cotes Portrait Baroness Morgan of Cotes (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak very briefly to Amendments 55 and 182. We are now at the stage of completely taking the lead from the Minister and the noble Lords opposite—the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones—that we have to accept these amendments, because we need now to see how this will work in practice. That is why we all think that we will be back here talking about these issues in the not too distant future.

My noble friend the Minister rightly said that, as we debated in Committee, the Government made a choice in taking out “legal but harmful”. Many of us disagree with that, but that is the choice that has been made. So I welcome the changes that have been made by the Government in these amendments to at least allow there to be more empowerment of users, particularly in relation to the most harmful content and, as we debated, in relation to adult users who are more vulnerable.

It is worth reminding the House that we heard very powerful testimony during the previous stage from noble Lords with personal experience of family members who struggle with eating disorders, and how difficult these people would find it to self-regulate the content they were looking at.

In Committee, I proposed an amendment about “toggle on”. Anyone listening to this debate outside who does not know what we are talking about will think we have gone mad, talking about toggle on and toggle off, but I proposed an amendment for toggle on by default. Again, I take the Government’s point, and I know my noble friend has put a lot of work into this, with Ministers and others, in trying to come up with a sensible compromise.

I draw attention to Amendment 55. I wonder if my noble friend the Minister is able say anything about whether users will be able to have specific empowerment in relation to specific types of content, where they are perhaps more vulnerable if they see it. For example, the needs of a user might be quite different between those relating to self-harm and those relating to eating disorder content or other types of content that we would deem harmful.

On Amendment 182, my noble friend leapt immediately to abusive content coming from unverified users, but, as we have heard, and as I know, having led the House’s inquiry into fraud and digital fraud last year, there will be, and already is, a prevalence of scams. The Bill is cracking down on fraudulent advertisements but, as an anti-fraud measure, being able to see whether an account has been verified would be extremely useful. The view now is that, if this Bill is successful—and we hope it is—in cracking down on fraudulent advertising, then there will be even more reliance on what is called organic reach, which is the use of fake accounts, where verification therefore becomes more important. We have heard from opinion polling that the public want to see which accounts are or are not verified. We have also heard that Amendment 182 is about giving users choice, in making clear whether their accounts are verified; it is not about compelling people to say whether they are verified or not.

As we have heard, this is a direction of travel. I understand that the Government will not want to accept these amendments at this stage, but it is useful to have this debate to see where we are going and what Ofcom will be looking at in relation to these matters. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister has to say about these amendments.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a good debate, perhaps unfairly curtailed in terms of the range of voices we have heard, but I am sure the points we wanted to have on the table are there and we can use them in summarising the debate we have had so far.

I welcome the Government’s amendments in this group. They have gone a long way to resolving a number of the difficulties that were left after the Digital Economy Act. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has said, we now have Part 3 and Part 5 hooked together in a consistent and effective way and definitions of “age verification” and “age estimation”. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, is sadly not in his place today—I normally judge the quality of the debate by the angle at which he resides in that top corner there. He is not here to judge it, but I am sure he would be upright and very excited by what we have been hearing so far. His point about the need for companies to be clearly responsible for what they serve up through their services is really important in what we are saying here today.

However, despite the welcome links across to the ICO age-appropriate design code, with the concerns we have been expressing on privacy there are still a number of questions which I think the Minister will want to deal with, either today or in writing. Several noble Lords have raised the question of what “proportionate” means in this area. I have mentioned it in other speeches in other groups. We all want the overall system to be proportionate in the way in which it allocates the powers, duties and responsibilities on the companies providing us with the services they do. But there is an exception for the question of whether children should have access to material which they should not get because of legal constraints, and I hope that “proportionate” is not being used in any sense to evade that.

I say that particularly because the concern has been raised in other debates—and I would be grateful if the Minister could make sure when he comes to respond that this issue is addressed—that smaller companies with less robust track records in terms of their income and expenditures might be able to plead that some of the responsibilities outlined in this section of the Bill do not apply to them because otherwise it would bear on their ability to continue. That would be a complete travesty of where we are trying to get to here, which is an absolute bar on children having access to material that is illegal or in the lists now in the Bill in terms of priority content.

The second worry that people have raised is: will the system that is set up here actually work in practice, particularly if it does not apply to all companies? That relates perhaps to the other half of the coin that I have just mentioned.

The third point, raised by a number of Peers, is: where does all this sit in relation to the review of pornography which was announced recently? A number of questions have been asked about issues which the Minister may be unable to respond to, but I suspect he may also want to write to us on the wider issue of timing and the terms of reference once they are settled.

I think we need to know this as we reach the end of the progress on this Bill, because you cannot expect a system being set up with the powers that are being given to Ofcom to work happily and well if Ofcom knows it is being reviewed at the same time. I hope that some consideration will be given to how we get the system up and running, even if the timescale is now tighter than it was, if at the same time a review rightly positioned to try to look at the wider range of pornography is going to impact on its work.

I want to end on the question raised by a large number of noble Lords: how does all this work sit with privacy? Where information and data are being shared on the basis of assuring access to services, there will be a worry if privacy is not ensured. The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, are very salient to this. I look forward to the Minister’s response to them.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, was unable to be here for the start of the debate on Thursday and therefore that we have not had the benefit of hearing from her today. I am very glad that she was here to hear the richly deserved plaudits from across the House for her years of campaigning on this issue.

I am very glad to have had the opportunity to discuss matters directly with her including, when it was first announced, the review that we have launched. I am pleased that she gave it a conditional thumbs up. Many of her points have been picked up by other noble Lords today. I did not expect anything more than a conditional thumbs up from her, given her commitment to getting this absolutely right. I am glad that she is here to hear some of the answers that I am able to set out, but I know that our discussions would have continued even if she had been able to speak today and that her campaigns on this important issue will not cease; she has been tireless in them. I am very grateful to her, my noble friends Lord Bethell and Lady Harding, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and many others who have been working hard on this.

Let me pick up on their questions and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and others on the review we announced last week. It will focus on the current regulatory landscape and how to achieve better alignment of online and offline regulation of commercial pornography. It will also look at the effectiveness of the criminal law and the response of the criminal justice system relating to pornography. This would focus primarily on the approach taken by law enforcement agencies and the Crown Prosecution Service, including considering whether changes to the criminal law would address the challenges identified.

The review will be informed by significant expert input from government departments across Whitehall, the Crown Prosecution Service and law enforcement agencies, as well as through consultation with the industry and with civil society organisations and regulators including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, rightly says, some of the many NGOs that do important work in this area. It will be a cross-government effort. It will include but not be limited to input from the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and my own Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I assure my noble friend Lord Farmer that other government departments will of course be invited to give their thoughts. It is not an exhaustive list.

I detected the enthusiasm for further details from noble Lords across the House. I am very happy to write as soon as I have more details on the review, to keep noble Lords fully informed. I can be clear that we expect the review to be complete within 12 months. The Government are committed to undertaking it in a timely fashion so that any additional safeguards for protecting UK users of online services can be put in place as swiftly as possible.

My noble friend Lord Bethell asked about international alignment and protecting Britain for investment. We continue to lead global discussions and engagement with our international partners to develop common approaches to online safety while delivering on our ambition to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, asked about the new requirements. They apply only to Part 3 providers, which allow pornography or other types of primary priority content on their service. Providers that prohibit this content under their terms of service for all users will not be required to use age verification or age estimation. In practice, we expect services that prohibit this content to use other measures to meet their duties, such as effective content moderation and user reporting. This would protect children from this content instead of requiring measures that would restrict children from seeing content that is not allowed on the service in the first place.

These providers can still use age verification and age estimation to comply with the existing duty to prevent children encountering primary priority content. Ofcom can still recommend age-verification and age-estimation measures in codes of practice for these providers where proportionate. On the noble Baroness’s second amendment, relating to Schedule 4, Ofcom may refer to the age-assurance principles set out in Schedule 4 in its children’s codes of practice.

On the 18-month timetable, I can confirm that 18 months is a backstop and not a target. Our aim is to have the regime in force as quickly as possible while making sure that services understand their new duties. Ofcom has set out in its implementation road map that it intends to publish draft guidance under Part 5 this autumn and draft children’s codes next spring.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, also asked about implementation timetables. I can confirm that Part 3 and Part 5 duties will be implemented at the same time. Ofcom will publish draft guidance shortly after Royal Assent for Part 5 duties and codes for the illegal content duties in Part 3. Draft codes for Part 3 children’s duties will follow in spring next year. Some Part 3 duties relating to category 1 services will be implemented later, after the categorisation thresholds have been set in secondary legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, asked about interoperability. We have been careful to ensure that the Bill is technology neutral and to allow for innovation across the age-assurance market. We have also included a principle on interoperability in the new list of age-assurance principles in Schedule 4 and the Part 5 guidance.

At the beginning of the debate, on the previous day on Report, I outlined the government amendments in this group. There are some others, which noble Lords have spoken to. Amendments 125 and 217, from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, seek to add additional principles on user privacy to the new lists of age-assurance principles for both Part 3 and 5, which are brought in by Amendments 124 and 216. There are already strong safeguards for user privacy in the Bill. Part 3 and 5 providers will need to have regard to the importance of protecting users’ privacy when putting in place measures such as age verification or estimation. Ofcom will be required to set out, in codes of practice for Part 3 providers and in guidance for Part 5 providers, how they can meet these duties relating to privacy. Furthermore, companies that use age-verification or age-estimation solutions will need to comply with the UK’s robust data protection laws or face enforcement action.

Adding the proposed new principles would, we fear, introduce confusion about the nature of the privacy duties set out in the Bill. Courts are likely to assume that the additions are intended to mean something different from the provisions already in the Bill relating to privacy. The new amendments before your Lordships imply that privacy rights are unqualified and that data can never be used for more than one purpose, which is not the case. That would introduce confusion about the nature of—

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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There is always a simple question. We are in a bit of a mess—again. When I said at Second Reading that I thought we should try to work together, as was picked up by the noble Baroness in her powerful speech, to get the best Bill possible out of what we had before us, I really did not know what I was saying. Emotion caught me and I ripped up a brilliant speech which will never see the light of day and decided to wing it. I ended up by saying that I thought we should do the unthinkable in this House—the unthinkable in politics, possibly—and try to work together to get the Bill to come right. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, pointed out, I do not think I have ever seen, in my time in this House, so many government amendments setting out a huge number of what we used to call concessions. I am not going to call them concessions—they are improvements to the Bill. We should pay tribute to the Minister, who has guided his extensive team, who are listening anxiously as we speak, in the good work they have been doing for some time, getting questioned quite seriously about where it is taking us.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is quite right to pick up what the pre-legislative scrutiny committee said about this aspect of the work we are doing today and what is in the Bill. We have not really nailed the two big things that social media companies ask: this amplification effect, where a single tweet—or thread, let us call it now—can go spinning around the world and gather support, comment, criticism, complaint, anger and all sorts of things that we probably do not really understand in the short period of time it takes to be read and reacted to. That amplification is not something we see in the real world; we do not really understand it and I am not quite sure we have got to the bottom of where we should be going at this stage.

The second most important point—the point we are stuck on at the moment; this rock, as it were, in the ocean—is the commercial pressure which, of course, drives the way in which companies operate. They are in it for the money, not the social purpose. They did not create public spaces for people to discuss the world because they think it is a good thing. There is no public service in this—this is a commercial decision to get as much money as possible from as many people as possible and, boy, are they successful.

But commercial pressures can have harms; they create harms in ways that we have discussed, and the Bill reflects many of those. This narrow difference between the way the Bill describes content, which is meant to include many of the things we have been talking about today—the four Cs that have been brought into the debate helpfully in recent months—does not really deal with the commercial pressures under which people are placed because of the way in which they deal with social media. We do not think the Bill is as clear as it could be; nor does it achieve as much as it should in trying to deal with that issue.

That is in part to do with the structure. It is almost beyond doubt that the sensibility of what we are trying to achieve here is in the Bill, but it is there at such a level of opacity that it does not have the clarity of the messages we have heard today from those who have spoken about individuals—Milly and that sort of story—and the impact on people. Even the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, whose swimming exploits we must admire, is an unwitting victim of the drive of commercial pressures that sees him in his underwear at inappropriate moments in order that they should seek the profits from that. I think it is great, but I wonder why.

I want to set the Minister a task: to convince us, now that we are at the bar, that when he says that this matter is still in play, he realises what that must imply and will give us a guarantee that we will be able to gain from the additional time that he seeks to get this to settle. There is a case, which I hope he will agree to, for having in the Bill an overarching statement about the need to separate out the harms that arise from content and the harms that arise from the system discussions and debates we have been having today where content is absent. I suggest that, in going back to Clause 1, the overarching objectives clause, it might well be worth seeing whether that might be strengthened so that it covers this impact, so that the first thing to read in the Bill is a sense that we embrace, understand and will act to improve this question of harm arising absent content. There is a case for putting into Clauses 10, 11, 25 and 82 the wording in Amendments 35, 36, 37A and 240, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and to use those as a way of making sure that every aspect of the journey through which social media companies must go to fulfil the duties set out in the Bill by Ofcom reflects both the content that is received and the design choices made by those companies in bringing forward those proposals for material content harms and the harms that arise from the design choices. Clauses 208 and 209 also have to provide a better consideration of how one describes harms so that they are not always apparently linked to content.

That is a very high hurdle, particularly because my favourite topic of how this House works will be engaged. We have, technically, already passed Clause 1; an amendment was debated and approved, and now appears in versions of the Bill. We are about to finish with Clauses 10 and 11 today, so we are effectively saying to the Minister that he must accept that there are deficiencies in the amendments that have already been passed or would be, if we were to pass Amendments 35, 36, 37A, 85 and 240 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others. It is not impossible, and I understand that it would be perfectly reasonable, for the Government to bring back a series of amendments on Third Reading reflecting on the way in which the previous provisions do not fulfil the aspirations expressed all around the House, and therefore there is a need to change them. Given the series of conversations throughout this debate—my phone is red hot with the exchanges taking place, and we do not have a clear signal as to where that will end up—it is entirely up to the Minister to convince the House whether these discussions are worth it.

To vote on this when we are so close seems ridiculous, because I am sure that if there is time, we can make this work. But time is not always available, and it will be up to the Minister to convince us that we should not vote and up to the noble Baroness to decide whether she wishes to test the opinion of the House. We have a three-line Whip on, and we will support her. I do not think that it is necessary to vote, however—we can make this work. I appeal to the Minister to get over the bar and tell us how we are to do it.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful for the discussion we have had today and the parallel discussions that have accompanied it, as well as the many conversations we have had, not just over the months we have been debating the Bill but over the past few days.

I will turn in a moment to the amendments which have been the focus of the debate, but let me first say a bit about the amendments in this group that stand in my name. As noble Lords have kindly noted, we have brought forward a number of changes, informed by the discussions we have had in Committee and directly with noble Lords who have taken an interest in the Bill for a long time.

Government Amendments 281C, 281D, 281E and 281G relate to the Bill’s interpretation of “harm”, which is set out in Clause 209. We touched on that briefly in our debate on Thursday. The amendments respond to concerns which I have discussed with many across your Lordships’ House that the Bill does not clearly acknowledge that harm and risk can be cumulative. The amendments change the Bill to make that point explicit. Government Amendment 281D makes it clear that harm may be compounded in instances where content is repeatedly encountered by an individual user. That includes, but is not limited to, instances where content is repeatedly encountered as a result of algorithms or functionalities on a service. Government Amendment 281E addresses instances in which the combination of multiple functionalities on a service cumulatively drives up the risk of harm.

Those amendments go hand in hand with other changes that the Government have made on Report to strengthen protections for children. Government Amendment 1, for instance, which we discussed at the beginning of Report, makes it clear that services must be safe by design and that providers must tackle harms which arise from the design and operation of their service. Government Amendments 171 and 172 set out on the face of the Bill the categories of “primary priority” and “priority” content which is harmful to children to allow the protections for children to be implemented as swiftly as possible following Royal Assent. As these amendments demonstrate, the Government have indeed listened to concerns which have been raised from all corners of your Lordships’ House and made significant changes to strengthen the Bill’s protections for children. I agree that it has been a model of the way in which your Lordships’ House operates, and the Bill has benefited from it.

Let me turn to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I am very grateful for her many hours of discussion on these specific points, as well as her years of campaigning which led to them. We have come a long way and made a lot of progress on this issue since the discussion at the start of Committee. The nature of online risk versus harm is one which we have gone over extensively. I certainly accept the points that the noble Baroness makes; I know how heartfelt they are and how they are informed by her experience sitting in courtrooms and in coroners’ inquests and talking to people who have had to be there because of the harms they or their families have encountered online. The Government are firmly of the view that it is indisputable that a platform’s functionalities, features or wider design are often the single biggest factor in determining whether a child will suffer harm. The Bill makes it clear that functions, features and design play a key role in the risk of harm occurring to a child online; I draw noble Lords’ attention to Clause 11(5), which makes it clear that the child safety duties apply across all areas of a service, including the way it is designed, operated and used, as well as content present on the service. That makes a distinction between the design, operation and use, and the content.

In addition, the Bill’s online safety objectives include that regulated services should be designed and operated so as to protect from harm people in the United Kingdom who are users of the service, including with regard to algorithms used by the service, functionalities of the services and other features relating to the operation of the service. There is no reference to content in this section, again underlining that the Bill draws a distinction.

This ensures that the role of functionalities is properly accounted for in the obligations on providers and the regulator, but I accept that noble Lords want this to be set out more clearly. Our primary aim must be to ensure that the regulatory framework can operate as intended, so that it can protect children in the way that they deserve and which we all want to see. Therefore, we cannot accept solutions that, however well meaning, may inadvertently weaken the Bill’s framework or allow providers to exploit legal uncertainty to evade their duties. We have come back to that point repeatedly in our discussions.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, we are dangerously on the same page this evening. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, about demonstrating the need for an independent complaints mechanism. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, captured quite a lot of the need to keep the freedom of expression aspect under close review, as we go through the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, have raised an important and useful debate, and there are some crucial issues here. My noble friend captured it when he talked about the justifiable limitations and the context in which limitations are made. Some of the points made about the Public Order Act offences are extremely valuable.

I turn to one thing that surprised me. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, quoted the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which said it had reservations about the protection of freedom of expression in the Bill. As we go through the Bill, it is easy to keep our eyes on the ground and not to look too closely at the overall impact. In its briefing, which is pretty comprehensive, paragraph 2.14 says:

“In a few cases, it may be clear that the content breaches the law. However, in most cases decisions about illegality will be complex and far from clear. Guidance from Ofcom could never sufficiently capture the full range or complexity of these offences to support service providers comprehensively in such judgements, which are quasi-judicial”.


I am rather more optimistic than that, but we need further assurance on how that will operate. Its life would probably be easier if we did not have the Public Order Act offences in Schedule 7.

I am interested to hear what the Minister says. I am sure that there are pressures on him, from his own Benches, to look again at these issues to see whether more can be done. The EHRC says:

“Our recommendation is to create a duty to protect freedom of expression to provide an effective counterbalance to the duties”.


The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, cited this. There is a lot of reference in the Bill but not to the Ofcom duties. So this could be a late contender to settle the horses, so to speak.

This is a difficult Bill; we all know that so much nuance is involved. We really hope that there is not too much difficulty in interpretation when it is put into practice through the codes. That kind of clarity is what we are trying to achieve, and, if the Minister can help to deliver that, he will deserve a monument.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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It is always nice to be nice to the Minister.

I will reference, briefly, the introduction of the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, which I signed. They were introduced extremely competently, as you would expect, by my noble and learned kinsman Lord Hope. It is important to get the right words in the right place in Bills such as this. He is absolutely right to point out the need to be sure that we are talking about the right thing when we say “freedom of expression”—that we do mean that and not “freedom of speech”; we should not get them mixed up—and, also, to have a consistent definition that can be referred to, because so much depends on it. Indeed, this group might have run better and more fluently if we had started with this amendment, which would have then led into the speeches from those who had the other amendments in the group.

The noble Baroness is not present today, but not for bad news: for good news. Her daughter is graduating and she wanted to be present at that; it is only right that she should do that. She will be back to pick up other aspects of the devolution issues she has been following very closely, and I will support her at that time.

The debate on freedom of expression was extremely interesting. It raised issues that, perhaps, could have featured more fully had this been timetabled differently, as both noble Lords who introduced amendments on this subject said. I will get my retaliation in first: a lot of what has been asked for will have been done. I am sure that the Minister will say that, if you look at the amendment to Clause 1, the requirement there is that freedom of expression is given priority in the overall approach to the Bill, and therefore, to a large extent, the requirement to replace that at various parts of the Bill may not be necessary. But I will leave him to expand on that; I am sure that he will.

Other than that, the tension I referred to in an earlier discussion, in relation to what we are made to believe about the internet and the social media companies, is that we are seeing a true public square, in which expressions and opinions can be exchanged as freely and openly as they would be in a public space in the real world. But, of course, neither of those places really exists, and no one can take the analogy further than has been done already.

The change, which was picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, in relation to losing “legal but harmful”, has precipitated an issue which will be left to social media companies to organise and police—I should have put “policing” in quotation marks. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, the remedy for much of this will be an appeals mechanism that works both at the company level and for the issues that need rebalancing in relation to complexity or because they are not being dealt with properly. We will not know that for a couple of years, but at least that has been provided for and we can look forward to it. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and my noble friend Lord Moylan do feel that they have been listened to. It was striking, in this debate, that they had support from all corners of your Lordships’ House. I know that, at various points in Committee, they may have felt that they were in a minority, but they have been a very useful and welcome one. This debate shows that many of the arguments that they have made throughout the passage of the Bill have resonated with noble Lords from across the House.

Although I have not signed amendments in the names of the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Moylan, in many cases it is not because I disagree with them but because I think that what they do is already covered in the Bill. I hope to reassure them of that in what I say now.

Amendments 77 to 81 from the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, would require services to have particular regard to freedom of expression and privacy when deciding on their terms of service. Services will already need to have particular regard to users’ rights when deciding on safety systems to fulfil their duties. These requirements will be reflected in providers’ terms of service, as a result of providers’ duties to set out their safety measures in their terms of service. The framework will also include a range of measures to allow scrutiny of the formulation, clarity and implementation of category 1 providers’ own terms of service.

However, there are some points on which we disagree. For instance, we do not think that it would be appropriate for all providers to have a general duty to have a particular regard to freedom of expression when deciding on their own terms of service about content. We believe that the Bill achieves the right balance. It requires providers to have regard to freedom of expression when carrying out their safety duties, and it enables public scrutiny of terms of service, while recognising providers’ own freedom of expression rights as private entities to set the terms of service that they want. It is of course up to adults to decide which services to use based on the way those services are drawn up and the way the terms of service set out what is permissible in them.

Nothing in the Bill restricts service providers’ ability to set their own terms and conditions for legal content accessed by adults—that is worth stressing. Ofcom will not set platforms’ terms and conditions, nor will it take decisions on whether individual pieces of content should, or should not, be on a platform. Rather, it will ensure that platforms set clear terms and conditions, so that adults know what to expect online, and ensure that platforms have systems and processes in place to enforce those terms and conditions themselves.

Amendment 226 from the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, would require providers to use all relevant information that is reasonably available to them whenever they make judgments about content under their terms of service. That is, where they have included or drafted those terms of service in compliance with duties in the Bill. Her amendment would be to an existing requirement in Clause 173, which already requires providers to take this approach whenever they implement a system or process to comply, and this system is making judgments about certain content. For example, Clause 173 already covers content judgments made via systems and processes that a category 1 provider implements to fulfil its Clause 65 duties to enforce its own terms of service consistently. So we feel that Clause 173 is already broad enough to achieve the objectives that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, seeks.

My noble friend Lord Moylan’s amendments seek to require Ofcom to have special regard to the importance of protecting freedom of expression when exercising its enforcement duties and when drafting codes or guidance. As we discussed in Committee, Ofcom has existing obligations to protect freedom of expression, and the Bill will include additional measures in this regard. We are also making additional amendments to underline the importance of freedom of expression. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie for their work to define “freedom of expression” in the Bill. The Bill’s new overarching statement at Clause 1, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, rightly pointed out, lists “freedom of expression”, signalling that it is a fundamental part of the Bill. That is a helpful addition.

Amendment 188 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, seeks to disapply platforms’ Clause 65 duties when platforms’ terms of service restrict lawful expression, or expression otherwise protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Her amendment would mean that category 1 providers’ Clause 65 duties to enforce clear, accessible terms of service in a consistent manner would not apply to any of their terms of service, where they are making their own decisions restricting legal content. That would greatly undermine the application of these provisions in the Bill.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights concerns individuals’ and entities’ rights to receive and impart ideas without undue interference by public authorities, not private entities. As such, it is not clear how a service provider deciding not to allow a certain type of content on its platform would engage the Article 10 rights of a user.

Beyond the legal obligations regarding the treatment of certain kinds of user-generated content imposed by this Bill and by other legislation, platforms are free to decide what content they wish, or do not wish, to have on their services. Provisions in the Bill will set out important duties to ensure that providers’ contractual terms on such matters are clear, accessible and consistently enforced.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, we have heard some very well-rehearsed lines during the debate today, with the usual protagonists. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that the Press Recognition Panel is as frustrated as many of us on these Benches and other Benches at the failure to implement a post-Leveson scheme of press regulation. Despite many efforts, it has never been fully put into effect.

I do not think I need to repeat a great deal of what has been said today. For instance, the record of IPSO, which the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, talked about, has been very well tracked by Hacked Off. This is not a proposal for state regulation—which is so often, if you like, the canard placed on it.

If not this Bill, which Bill? The media Bill is not going to tackle issues such as this, as my noble friend Lord McNally said. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has pointed out, this Bill has been a series of conversations —extremely fruitful conversations—but in this particular direction it has borne no fruit at all.

I must admit that, throughout my looking at the draft Bill and continuing to look through its various versions, this opt-out for news publishers has remained a puzzle. The below-the-line opt-out for the mainstream news media always strikes me as strange, because there is no qualification that there should be any curation of that below-the-line, user-generated content. That is peculiar, and it is rather like somebody in the last chance saloon being rewarded with a bouquet. It seems a rather extraordinary provision.

My noble friend Lord Allan rightly pointed to some of the dangers in the new provisions, and indeed in the provisions generally, for these services. I hope the Minister has at least some answers to give to the questions he raised. Progress on this and the scheme that the PRP was set up to oversee, which is still not in place, remain a source of great division across the parties and within them. There is still hope; it may be that under a different Government we would see a different result.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I was unfortunately unable to attend round 1 of this debate—I had to leave. My noble friend Lord Knight has absented himself from hearing what I am going to say about his remarks, so he must fear that he had got his lines wrong. I apologised to him for leaving him a bit exposed, because we had not quite anticipated how the conversation would go, but I think he did as well as he could, and I repeat the lines he said: this is not the right Bill to rerun the arguments about the Leveson report. I still believe that. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, does not think the media Bill is; maybe it is not, but at least we can make sure that the debate is properly argued.

It is interesting that, although we clearly have well-defined positions and antipathies present in the debate, a number of things have been said today that will be helpful, if we manage to get a little closer, in trying to resolve some of the issues outstanding. If I am still around and involved in it, I will approach this by trying to see what we can do together rather than the rights and wrongs of positions we have adopted before. It has worked for this Bill: we have achieved huge changes to the Bill because we decided from the start that we would try to see what was the best that could come out of it. That is the instinct I have as we go forward to any future debate and discussion, whether or not it is on the media Bill.

The puzzling thing here is why this is such a continuing concern that it needs to be brought into to any opportunity we have to discuss these areas. The sense we had in the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, which discussed this to some extent but not in quite the same range as we have tonight, or even in Committee, was that the issues raised in this Bill were really about protecting freedom of expression. At that stage, the Bill still had the legal but harmful clauses in it so perhaps had had less exposure to those issues in the debate we had. I still think it is primarily about that. I still have real concerns about it, as have been raised by one or two people already in our discussion. I do not think the recognised news provider definition is a good one; I do not think the definition of a journalist is a good one. The pre-legislative scrutiny committee wanted an objective test of material based around public interest, but the Government would not accept that, so we are where we are. We must try to ensure that what works is what we have in the Bill in relation to the topics before it.

The primary purpose must be to ensure material that will inform and enhance our knowledge about democracy, current affairs and issues that need to be debated in the public space, so it is clearly right that that which is published by recognised journalists—quality journalists is another phrase that has been used—should be protected, perhaps more than other material, but at the fringes there are still doubts as to whether the Bill does that.

I had taken it that in the amendments I signed up to, government Amendments 158 and 161, the material we were talking about was from recognised news publishers, not material self-generated in social media. I am looking hard at the Minister hoping he will be able to come to my aid when he comes to respond. The issue here is about making sure that material that was not originally broadcast but is still provided by a recognised news publisher is protected from being taken down, and it would not have been if those amendments were not made. I hope that is the right interpretation. That was the basis on which I signed up for them; I do not know quite where it leaves me if that is wrong.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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As I opened up that question, just to be clear, I was saying that it is exactly right that an individual user would not be covered, but I was trying to suggest that a social media-only news service that does not exist as a publication or a broadcaster outside social media, if it meets the Clause 50 test to be a recognised news publisher, should be given extra scope under the amendments.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I hope they do not, and I think the Minister has to answer that question quite directly. The issue here is about quality material that would otherwise be taken down being kept in place so that we can all as a society be informed by that. That does not mean it needs to be from particular sources that we know to be egregious or running material which is certainly not in the public interest. Again, I make the point that that would have been a better way of approaching this in the legislation, but I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, who knows his stuff—I often think we ought to bottle him and carry it around so we can take a whiff of his expertise and knowledge every time we get stuck on a problem, but I am not quite sure how we manage that.

Online Safety Bill

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Excerpts
The logic is absolutely in favour of this. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to take it on board because it has been seen to be logical right from the word go, particularly by the Joint Committee. I think the Communications and Digital Committee also recommended it, so what is not to like?
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, as others have said, this has been a very interesting tour d’horizon of some of the points in the Bill that we still need to resolve. I will not go over too much of the detail that has been raised because those points need a response from the Minister when he responds.

I will start with the use of “chairman” in several places throughout the Bill. We do not understand what is going on here. My noble friend Lady Merron wanted to deal with this but she unfortunately is not here, so I have been left holding the issue, and I wish to pursue it vigorously.

It is probably not well known but, in 2007, the Government decided that there ought to be changes in the drafting of our laws to make them gender-neutral as much as possible. Since 2007, it has been customary practice to replace words that could be gender-specific with those which are not. The Drafting Guidance, which is issued and should be followed by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, says that gender-neutral drafting requires

“avoiding gender-specific pronouns (such as ‘he’) for a person who is not necessarily of that gender”,

and avoiding gender-specific nouns

“that might appear to assume that a person of a particular gender will do a particular job or perform a particular role (eg ‘chairman’)”.

The guidance provides another bit of extra information:

“The gender-specific noun most likely to be encountered is ‘chairman’. ‘Chair’ is now widely used in primary legislation as a substitute”,


and we should expect to see it. Why do we not see it in this Bill?

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My wife, who is chairman of a number of things, objects to “chair” as “furniturism”. She likes to be referred to as a person and not a thing.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I respect the noble Lord’s point. I did not make a specific proposal; I simply asked why the Bill was framed in circumstances that are not those required by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.

Moving on, Amendment 288A, which addresses the issue of multiple characteristics, is welcome. I am grateful to the Minister for it. However, it is a rather odd solution to what should be a very straightforward question. We have the amendment—which, as I said, we welcome—because it was pointed out that the new overarching objective for this Bill that has been brought forward by government amendment refers to issues affecting those who have a characteristic. It uses the word “characteristic” without qualification, although I think most of us who have been involved in these debates and discussions realise that this is an oblique reference to the Equality Act 2010 and that, although they are not set out in the Bill, the characteristics concerned are probably those that are protected under the Equality Act. I think the Minister has some problem with the Equality Act, because we have crossed swords on it before, but we will not go back into that.

In referencing “a characteristic”, which is perfectly proper, we did not realise—but it has been pointed out—that under the Interpretation Act it is necessary to recall that in government legislation when the singular is mentioned it includes the plural unless it is specifically excluded. So we can assume that when references are made to “a characteristic”, they do in fact mean “characteristics”. Therefore, by logic, moving forward to the way to which it is referred in the Bill, when a person is referred to as having “a characteristic” it can also be assumed that the reference in the Bill applies to them having more than one characteristic.

However, grateful as I am to the Minister for bringing forward these amendments, which we accept, this is not quite the point that we were trying to get across. I invite the Minister, when he comes to respond, to explain a little more about the logic behind what I will propose. We are fairly convinced—as I think are most people who have been involved in these discussions—that social media companies’ form of operation, providing the materials and service that we want, is gendered. I do not think there is any doubt about that; everybody who has spoken in this debate has at some stage pointed out that, in many cases, those with protected characteristics, and women and girls in particular, are often picked on and singled out. A pile-on—the phrase used to mean the amplification that comes with working on the internet—is a very serious concern. That may change; it may just be a feature of today’s world and one day be something that does not happen. However, at the moment, it is clearly the case that if one is in some way characterised by a protected characteristic, and you have more than one of them, you tend to get more attention, aggravation and difficulty in your social media engagement. The evidence is so clear that we do not need to go into it.

The question we asked in Committee, and which we hoped we would get a response to, was whether we should always try to highlight the fact that where we are talking about people with more than one characteristic, it is the fact that there is a combination, not that it is a plural, that is the matter. Being female and Jewish, which has been discussed several times from the Dispatch Box by my noble friend Lady Merron and others, seems to be the sort of combination of characteristics which causes real difficulties on the internet for the people who have them. I use that only as one example; there are others.

If that is the case then it would have been nice to have seen that specifically picked up, and my original drafting of the amendment did that. However, we have accepted the Government’s amendment to create the new overarching objective, and I do not want to change it at this stage—we are past that debate. But I wonder whether the Minister, when he comes to respond, could perhaps as a grace note explain that he accepts the point that it is the doubling or tripling of the characteristics, not the plurality, that matters.

Moving back to the clauses that have been raised by others speaking in this debate, and who have made points that need to be responded to, I want to pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, about the need for some form of engagement between domestic regulators if we are going to get the best possible solution to how the internet is regulated as we go forward. We have never said that there had to be a new super-regulator and we never intended that there should be powers taken to change the way in which we do this. However, some form of co-operation, other than informal co-operation, is almost certainly going to be necessary. We do not want to subtract from where we are in relation to how our current regulators operate—they seem to be working well—but we worry that the legal powers and support that might be required in order to do that are not yet in place or, if they are in place, are based on somewhat archaic and certainly not modern-day regulatory practice.

Is this something that the committees of the Houses might consider? Perhaps when we come to other amendments around this, that is something we might pick up, because I think it probably needs further consideration away from the Bill in order to get the best possible solution. That is particularly true given, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, says, so many of these regulators will now have experience of working together and might be prepared to share that in evidence or in appearances before such a committee.

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My amendments just remind Ofcom that we need this research and evidence by nation. This Bill is so large, so wide-ranging, that Ofcom’s remit and functions are having to expand hugely to deliver this new regime. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, reminded us last week that what Ofcom does comes from the legislation. It does not do things off its own bat. Ofcom already has a huge challenge on its hands with this Bill, and experience tells us that it is likely to deliver only what is specified—the “must do” bits, not the “nice to do” extras. There may be no differences in the online experiences across the nations of the UK, but the only way we can be sure is if we have the data for each nation, the transparency and all the research reporting. I urge the Minister to take my amendment seriously.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I think that was a very good speech from the noble Baroness, partly because I signed her amendment and support it and also because I want to refer back to the points made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, about research. I am speaking from the Back Benches here because some of what I say may not have been cleared fully with my colleagues, but I am hoping that they will indulge me slightly. If I speak from this elevated position, perhaps they will not hear me so well.

To deal with noble Lords in the order in which they spoke, I support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, in relation to having a bit more activity in relation to the area where we have very good change of government policy in relation to access by researchers to data, and I am very grateful to the Minister for doing that. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, made the point that there is perhaps a bigger question and a bigger story than can be done just by simply bringing forward the time of the report and changing “may” to “must”, although I always think “may” to “must” changes are important because they reflect a complete change of approach and I hope action will follow. The question about access by those who need data in order to complete their research is crucial to the future success of these regimes. That plays back to what the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, was saying, which is that we need to have this not just in aggregate form but broken down and stratified so that we can really interrogate where this information is showing the gaps, the opportunities, the changes that are needed and the successes, if there are any, in the way in which we are working.

I support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, because I think this is not so much a question of regulation or lawmaking in this Bill but of trying to engender a change of culture about the way in which social media companies operate. It will need all of us, not just the Government or the regulatory bodies, to continue to press this because this is a major sea change in what they have been doing until now. They are quite rightly protective of their business interests and business secrets, but that is not the same when the currency is data and our data is being used to create change and opportunity and their profits are based on exploiting our resources.

I go back to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, in his opening amendment today about why consumer rights do not apply when monetary considerations are not being taken into account. Bartering our data in order to obtain benefits from social media companies is not the same as purchasing over the counter at the local shop—we accept that—but times have changed and we are living in a different world. Everything is being bought and sold electronically. Why is consumer law not being moved forward to take account of that so that the rights that are important to that, because they are the same, are being exploited? I leave that for the Minister to come back to if he wishes to do so from the Dispatch Box.

Moving on to the Scottish issues, the amendment, as introduced by the noble Baroness, is about transparency and data, but I think it hides a bigger question which I am afraid affects much of the legislation that comes through this House, which is that very often the devolution impact of changes in the law and new laws that are brought forward is always the last to be thought about and is always tacked on at the end in ways that are often very obscure.

I have one particularly obscure question which I want to leave with the Minister, completely unreasonably, but I think it just about follows on from the amendment we are discussing. It is that, towards the end of the Bill, Clause 53(5)(c) refers to the consent of the Secretary of State or other Minister of the Crown to crimes in Scottish or Northern Irish legislation when they enter the Online Safety Bill regime. This is because, as has been made clear, laws are changing and are already different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from some of the criminal laws in England and Wales. While that is to be welcomed, as the noble Baroness said, the devolved Administrations should have the right to make sure, in the areas of their control, that they have the laws that are appropriate for the time, but if they are different, we are going to have to live with those across the country in a way that is a bit patchwork. There need to be rules about how they will apply. I think the noble Baroness said that it would be right and proper that a crime committed in one territory is treated within the rules that apply in that territory, but if they are significantly different, we ought at least to understand why that is the case and how that has come about.

As I understand it—I have a note provided by Carnegie UK and it is always pretty accurate about these matters—the Secretary of State can consent to a devolved authority which wants to bring forward a devolved offence and include it in the online safety regime. However, it is not quite clear how that happens. What is a consent? Is it an Order in Council, a regulation, affirmative or negative procedure or primary legislation? We are not told that; we are just told that consent arrangements apply and consent can be given. Normally consents involve legislative authority—in its words, one Parliament speaking to another—and we are all becoming quite aware of the fact that the legislative consent required from Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales is often not given, yet the UK Parliament continues to make legislation and it applies, so the process works, but obviously it would be much better if the devolved structures were involved and agreed to what was being done. This is different from the normal top-down approach. Where we already have a change in the law or the law is about to be changed in one of the devolved Administrations, how does that become part of the Online Safety Bill regime? I look forward to the Minister’s response. I did not warn him that I was giving him a very difficult question, and he can write if he cannot give the detail today, but we would like to see on the record how this happens.

If we are getting Statements to Parliament from the Secretary of State about provisional changes to the way in which the law applies in the devolved Administrations, are they going to be subject to due process? Will there be engagement with committees? What will happen if a new code is required or a variation in the code is required? Does that require secondary legislation and, if so, will that be done with the consent of the devolved Administration or by this Parliament after a process we are yet to see?

There is a lot here that has not been fleshed out. There are few very easy answers, but it would be useful if we could get that going. I will not go into more detail on the noble Baroness’s point that laws change, but I know that the Law Society of Scotland has briefed that at least one major piece of legislation, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021, does not appear in Schedule 7 as expected. Again, I ask the Minister if he would write to us explaining the background to that.

These are very important issues and they do not often get discussed in the full process of our Bills, so I am glad that the noble Baroness raised them. She cloaked them in what sounded like a very general and modest request, but they reveal quite considerable difficulties behind them.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We think we can rely on Ofcom’s discretion, and point to its current practice. I hope that will reassure my noble friend that it will set out the information she seeks.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I was about to say that I am very happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about the manner by which consent is given in Clause 53(5)(c), but I think his question is on something else.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I would be grateful if the Minister could repeat that immediately afterwards, when I will listen much harder.

Just to echo what the noble Baroness was saying, may we take it as an expectation that approaches that are signalled in legislation for broadcasting and communications should apply pari passu to the work of Ofcom in relation to the devolved Administrations?