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Parliamentary Committee Starts Scrutinising UK Online Safety Bill

Thursday, July 29th, 2021 (12:01 am) - Score 504
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A new cross-party “super committee” has today begun to scrutinise the UK Government’s new Online Safety Bill (Online Harms), which aims to have Ofcom clampdown on “harmful” online content (e.g. hate speech, bullying, terrorism, conspiracy theories etc.), while precariously trying to balance that with freedom of speech.

As we’ve said before, trying to regulate the common public expression of negative human thought, while also balancing that against complex issues of context (e.g. people joking about blowing up a city in a video game vs actual terrorists), satire, the right to cause offence, political speech and the risk from overzealous automated filtering systems, is a nightmare and some believe that parts of the OSB may even be unworkable.

Commercial businesses will be keen to reduce their liability, but since manually moderating all content on major platforms would be economically impossible, then that tends to foster a greater dependence on overzealous automated filtering systems. Such systems aren’t terribly good at understanding context or history and thus make poor decisions (i.e. lots of legitimate content could be removed).

Similarly, a recent report from the Lords Communications and Digital Committee warned that the UK Government’s new bill was, at least in its current form, a “threat to free speech” due to its clampdown on “legal but harmful” content, which they said “would be ineffective” (here).

Not to mention other concerns, such as those that exist around the technically tedious plan for an Age Verification (AV) system on many websites, as well as the ongoing attempts to ban end-to-end encryption from internet messaging systems.

The new committee, chaired by Damian Collins MP, will need to examine all of these aspects. Collins is also the former chair of the House of Commons DCMS Select Committee, whose inquiry on Disinformation and ‘fake news’ recommended tougher action on online hate speech and greater regulation of social media companies, including Facebook.

Damian Collins MP, Chair of the JCOSB, said:

“The Online Safety Bill is about finally putting a legal framework around hate speech and harmful content, and ultimately holding the tech giants to account for the role their technology plays in promoting it.

The next step in this process is the detailed scrutiny of the draft Bill. This is a once in a generation piece of legislation that will update our laws for the digital age.

We now have a super committee of MPs and peers, highly experienced in this area who will work together to go through this Bill line by line to make sure it’s fit for purpose. Freedom of speech is at the heart of our democracy, but so is fighting against movements that seeks to harm and dehumanise people. In the social media age we have not yet got that balance right, and now is the time to fix it.”

The committee will start their work today by asking the public for their views on the draft legislation (here) and questioning whether it will achieve its aim of making the UK “the safest place to be online.” The Committee are specifically seeking views on how the Bill compares to online safety legislation in other countries, and whether it represents a threat to freedom of expression.

The goal will be to complete this work and report any findings to the Government before 10th December 2021. The members of the Committee are listed below.

From the House of Commons:

  • Damian Collins MP (Chair) (Con) former Chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and current Chair of the APPGs for Media Freedom and Media Literacy
  • Debbie Abrahams MP (Lab) current member House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee
  • Darren Jones MP (Lab) current Chair of the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, Co-chair, APPG Parliamentary Information, Communications and Technology Forum, Chair of the APPG on Technology and National Security and Chair of the APPG on Data Poverty
  • John Nicolson MP (SNP) Shadow SNP Spokesperson for DCMS, current member House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee
  • Dean Russell MP (Con) current member Joint Committee on Human Rights and House of Commons Select Committee on Health and Social Care, Chair of the APPG on Digital Health and the APPG on Digital IDs
  • Suzanne Webb MP (Con) current member House of Commons Procedure Committee, PPS for Department for International Trade and Women and Equalities

From the House of Lords:

  • Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) current member House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee
  • Lord Black of Brentwood (Con) current member House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee
  • Lord Clement-Jones (Lib Dem) Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Digital
  • Baroness Kidron (Cross bench) current member of the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee
  • Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab) current member House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee
  • Lord Gilbert of Panteg (Con) Chair of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee

Leave a Comment
2 Responses
  1. Mike says:

    Scrutinising it to make sure enough freedoms are being taken away…

  2. James harding says:

    A pointless overreach by the government and a stamping of freedom

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