House of Commons DCMS Select Committee issues report on Online Safety Bill

January 25, 2022

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has issued its report on the Online Safety Bill. This follows, among others, another report issued last month by a joint Lords and Commons committee and the publication of the Irish Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill last week.

The DCMS Committee says that the UK government’s Draft Online Safety Bill is an ambitious, complex and contested piece of legislation. It aims to make user-to-user and search service providers more accountable for the decisions they make when designing platforms and the systems and processes that govern them. The Committee welcomed the government’s decision, as per its previous recommendation, to publish the Draft Bill in full and engage proactively with the various committees, who have conducted comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny.

However, the Committee says that there are several areas where existing pre-legislative scrutiny has missed an opportunity and must go further. It has urgent concerns that, as currently drafted, the Bill neither adequately protects freedom of expression nor is clear and robust enough to tackle the various types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services. 

It says that the Government should redraft the Online Safety Bill to state explicitly that the scope of the framework for addressing “illegal content”, which should be subject to the most stringent moderation measures, specifically applies to existing criminal offences, rather than regulatory offences and civil or administrative wrongs. The Committee also recommends that the government respond to its concerns about the risk of content and activity that falls below the threshold of outright criminal activity but nonetheless forms part of the sequence for online child sexual exploitation and abuse. One starting point should be to reframe the definition of illegal content to explicitly add the need to consider context as a factor, and include explicitly definitions of activity like breadcrumbing.

It has proposed several amendments to the definition and scope of harms covered by the regime that would bring the Bill into line with the UK’s obligations to freedom of expression under international human rights law. 

In addition, the Committee’s report finds that current provisions that provide Ofcom with a suite of powers and users with redress are unclear and impractical. It therefore calls on the government to provide greater clarity within the Bill on how and when these powers should be used to ensure they are both practical and proportionate. It also recommends that the online safety regime should require providers to have designated compliance officers, similar to financial services regulation.

Finally, it is concerned that the Joint Committee’s recommendation to replace independent, elected, cross-party select committees with a joint committee created by Government would undermine, rather than enhance, parliamentary scrutiny.

The government has two months to respond. The Committee points out that it is also important to note that the online safety regime will form only one part of the UK’s framework for digital regulation.  It says that government should provide an update on its work on online advertising and digital markets in response to its report and publish its responses to the consultations in each of these areas by the time it responds to the Committee in two months’ time.