DCMS Select Committee issues report on Online Safety Bill

July 3, 2022

The House of Commons DMCS Select Committee has issued a report on the Online Safety Bill. The UK government published its draft Online Safety Bill on 12 May 2021.The Committee considered the text alongside the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, drawing attention to the tensions that needed to be addressed regarding the categorisation of legal but harmful content and activity, Ofcom’s suite of powers and parliamentary oversight of the regime.

The Government then introduced its Online Safety Bill in the House of Commons with amendments to the draft Bill.

However, the Committee has pointed out that as might be expected with legislation on such a complex matter, there remain several urgent issues. The Committee decided to take oral evidence to understand what these outstanding issues might be and whether it wished to formally seek to amend the Bill. Three key issues were:

  • The potential for the Secretary of State to interfere with the issuing of codes of practice;
  • The potential to make individuals in social media companies more directly responsible for ensuring their services were “safer by design”; and
  • Whether the Bill should mandate the provision of digital literacy to better enable users to secure their own safety when online.

The Committee states that the key issue is to ensure the integrity of Ofcom, the proposed regulator for online safety. The Bill is structured, through its safety duties and resulting codes of practice, so that everything else flows from the independent functioning of the regulator.

Even if the amendments proposed by the Committee are accepted, the Bill would still:

·       mandate that the Secretary of State is consulted when codes of practice are drafted and amended;

·       provide for the Secretary of State to draw up guidance on how the regulator exercises its functions in relation to online safety; and

·       provide for the Secretary of State to give direction to the regulator in special circumstances involving the health or safety of the public or national security.

The Committee says that there is no need for the Online Safety Bill to provide the Secretary of State, now or in the future, with the power to direct or block the regulator from issuing codes of practice before the UK Parliament considers them. The UK government must maintain its approach to ensuring independent, effective and trustworthy regulation that has a proven track record in other sectors. The Committee recommends that the government accepts its proposed amendments covering these issues.