Watering down Online Safety Bill ‘will put children at risk’

Social media
Social media

Children could be put at risk by attempts to rewrite the Online Safety Bill, say five former culture secretaries, as they urged the Government to “swiftly” introduce the new duty of care laws.

In an exclusive article for The Telegraph, the five – Nadine Dorries, Sir Jeremy Wright, Baroness Morgan, Karen Bradley and Dame Maria Miller – hit back at critics who are demanding changes because they fear it could restrict free speech.

They warned that attempts to remove protections against “legal but harmful” content could leave children exposed to material promoting self harm, anorexia, hate speech of anti-Semitism.

They said it was wrong for critics to represent the measures as an attack on free speech or allowing social media companies to censor material that was not harmful but simply controversial.

Critics including former Brexit ministers Lord Frost, David Davis and Steve Baker have urged the Government “at the bare minimum” to remove the clause on legal but harmful content because they claim it is “dangerously vague” and gives the online giants too much power.

Ministers have said the Bill will be “tweaked” to protect free speech but the five culture secretaries said opponents were misrepresenting “this section as setting too low a bar for harm, and being an attack on free speech. Neither is the case.

“The promotion of self-harm, pro-anorexia content, legal hate speech or anti-Semitism are just some categories of legal content which no one can defend as being harmless.

“There are, tragically, too many stark examples of suicide and death among our young people, where social media has played a role in algorithmically promoting content that promotes violence or self-harm.”

Citing the case of Molly Russell, the 14 year old who took her life after being bombarded with self-harm and suicide material online, they said tech firms’ efforts to combat such “devastating” content was “inconsistently applied and undemocratically defined”.

Molly Russell, whose inquest heard she was bombarded online with self-harm and suicide material
Molly Russell, whose inquest heard she was bombarded online with self-harm and suicide material

They added: “It is clear that Silicon Valley companies cannot be left to make decisions … without proper accountability and transparency.

“The Bill represents an important step towards correcting the massive power imbalance by ensuring that there is more democratic oversight of our online spaces, both from Parliament and from Ofcom, the independent regulator.”

They said it was also in tune with what the public wanted, with polls showing more than four in five adults were concerned about online content promoting self-harm as well as racism and misogyny.

“A core tenet of the Online Safety Bill is ensuring that social media companies are clear in their terms of service, and consistent in applying them,” they said.

“This delivers exactly what the public want, with 78 per cent of people wanting social media companies to be clear about what sort of content is and isn’t allowed on their platform.”

They said the Bill already contained “rigorous” protections for free speech and “strongly” urged Liz Truss and Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary, to ensure it continued its path through Parliament in the autumn. “Any further delay in this process unnecessarily leaves our children and society at risk,” they said.

Tragic deaths of young people show the importance of the Online Safety Bill

By Sir Jeremy Wright, Baroness Morgan, Karen Bradley, Nadine Dorries and Maria Miller 

In our 2019 election manifesto, the Conservative Party committed to “legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.” We must stand by that promise. The Online Safety Bill, the development of which we oversaw during our separate tenures as secretary of state, is the means of achieving this safer online environment. While we were frustrated that the Bill was put on hold earlier this year, we are pleased that it will be returning to Parliament under the new Prime Minister.

As the manifesto said, the Bill will deliver on our commitment by “protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.” All of us would benefit from such improvements.

Critics of the Bill focus their concerns around the section on “legal but harmful” content – content which is not illegal but which can cause serious harm. They misrepresent this section as setting too low a bar for harm, and being an attack on free speech. Neither is the case. The promotion of self-harm, pro-anorexia content, legal hate speech or anti-Semitism are just some categories of legal content which no one can defend as being harmless.

There are, tragically, too many stark examples of suicide and death amongst our young people, where social media has played a role in algorithmically promoting content that promotes violence or self-harm. The tragic cases of Molly Russell – whose inquest started this week – and Olly Stephens come to mind.

Platforms say that they already have many policies in place to reduce the reach of such devastating content, but these are inconsistently applied and undemocratically defined. It is clear that Silicon Valley companies cannot be left to make decisions that affect our information markets without proper accountability and transparency.

The Bill represents an important step towards correcting the massive power imbalance by ensuring that there is more democratic oversight of our online spaces, both from Parliament and from Ofcom, the independent regulator.

This Bill is overwhelmingly supported by the public. Polling in July 2022 showed that over four in five adults in the UK “are concerned about seeing harmful content – such as racism, misogyny, homophobia and content that encourages self-harm.”

A core tenet of the Online Safety Bill is ensuring that social media companies are clear in their terms of service, and consistent in applying them. This delivers exactly what the public want, with 78 per cent of people wanting social media companies to be clear about what sort of content is and isn’t allowed on their platform. The Bill seeks to ensure the safety of all users and deliver on a key public priority. Those who oppose the Bill – including those sections on legal harms – are on the wrong side of public opinion.

The Bill also has rigorous protections for freedom of speech and democratic debate. Differing views and opinions should continue to flourish online. That is why freedom of expression and of the press feature prominently in this legislation. These protections will improve upon the status quo, where private companies can decide what we see and what we say without accountability.

Those who believe this Bill is being rushed through Parliament might be reminded that few pieces of legislation have seen a higher degree of scrutiny than the Online Safety Bill. The Bill started as a Green Paper in 2017, followed by a White Paper in 2019. A wide public consultation on the White Paper culminated in a draft Bill in 2021. The draft Bill was then scrutinised by a Joint Committee as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process which resulted in a unanimous report and set of recommendations. The Bill went through line-by-line scrutiny most recently by a Bill Committee, which examined it for almost 60 hours. The Bill had nearly completed its first stage in the Commons but was pushed back at the eleventh hour due to the resignation of Boris Johnson. It is then due to go to the Lords for further debate and analysis.

Consequently, we strongly urge the new Prime Minister and Culture Secretary to ensure that the Online Safety Bill swiftly continues its path through Parliament in the autumn. Any further delay in this process unnecessarily leaves our children and society at risk.

As a key part of our manifesto, there is no time to waste to ensure this Bill receives Royal Assent before the next general election. The public want this now and if we fail to deliver it we will be letting them down, breaking a manifesto pledge and ceding first mover advantage to other countries seeking to regulate the online space.

All five of the authors are former Culture Secretaries