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Online Safety Bill "Could Pose Risk" To Balance Of Power Between Government And Tech Firms, Peer Warns

Michelle Donelan's new department is responsible for the Online Safety Bill (Alamy)

5 min read

The Online Safety Bill risks trying to do too much too quickly while giving too much power to the secretary of state, according to a Conservative peer.

As the Online Safety Bill enters the committee stage in the House of Lords on Wednesday – with a whopping list of amendments across more than 100 pages to be debated – Conservative peer and chair of the Lords Digital and Communications Committee Baroness Tina Stowell has warned that the government must get the “overarching framework” right. 

The bill has been overseen by four different prime ministers since the proposals for it were first published in 2019, and has proved contentious ever since.

It seeks to legislate for social media companies to take responsibility for harmful and illegal content online and make it safer for users – particularly children – to experience the internet.

While online safety campaigners and freedom of speech advocates battle over details in the bill regarding platforms’ access to user content and end-to-end encryption, Baroness Stowell is more concerned about how the bill may affect the balance of power between government, Parliament, and regulators. 

“The key thing is getting the balance of power right between Parliament, government, Ofcom, and the tech platforms,” she told PoliticsHome. 

“Ultimately, this new regulatory framework should mean greater accountability to the public if each institution is properly equipped to discharge their respective responsibilities.”

The government is seeking to place greater checks on the regulator Ofcom, which will be responsible for carrying out the functions of the bill. While Stowell welcomes these checks, she is concerned that the independence of Ofcom could be undermined, potentially damaging its ability to hold tech platforms to account.

Stowell has tabled her own amendments to be considered, including removing the secretary of state’s abilities to direct Ofcom on a draft code of practice and to give wide-ranging guidance to Ofcom on its functions under the bill. She said she believed there is “strong support across the House” for some of the changes she has proposed.

“Parliament, as the ultimate democratic power, needs to be satisfied that the government isn’t taking more power to itself than is proper,” the Conservative peer said. 

“That’s why I do have concerns about the proposals to allow the secretary of state to direct Ofcom on its code of practice. This is unnecessarily intrusive.

“But Parliament needs to play a bigger role here. It needs to be able to hold the regulator and government to account effectively.”

Stowell suggested that a new parliamentary committee could be set up specifically to ensure Ofcom is delivering what it needs to, and getting the balance of power right.

Describing the bill as only the “start of effective online regulation” and “not the end game”, she said a new parliamentary committee would ensure legislation would be future-proof for technological changes. 

“There is a danger that the Online Safety Bill is trying to solve all the problems of the online world in perpetuity,” she said. 

“Technology and its uses are developing fast, and touch on so many aspects of how we live our lives. So we won’t ever have a single piece of legislation that can cover everything.

“We need to get the regulatory fundamentals right and ensure we can keep updating the regime as needed in the years ahead."

Stowell added that online protection for children and young people should be the ultimate priority. 

At the Commons committee stage, similar amendments were tabled to reduce the power of the secretary of state, but were rejected by the government. 

A Labour source told PoliticsHome: "Despite best efforts the Bill as it stands still gives too much power to the SoS of the day.

“We all want to see people better protected online but it should not be at the hands of an individual to decide or dictate how this bill will be implemented once passed.

“The Online Safety Bill was once supposed to be a world-leading piece of legislation but has now been re-drafted and delayed so much that other jurisdictions across the globe have caught up and in some cases are doing better.

“The government must ensure that this bill is not subject to further delay – after all, for every day of inaction more and more harm is taking place online."

Carnegie UK, an independent charitable foundation which works on research into wellbeing, has also expressed concerns about whether the extent of government power in the bill is justified. 

"Carnegie UK has long argued that the powers the Bill gives to the Secretary of State are too wide-ranging and threaten both the effective operation of the regulatory regime and the independence of Ofcom,” Maeve Walsh, Associate at Carnegie UK, told PoliticsHome.

“In the year since the Online Safety Bill has been introduced, the government has been repeatedly challenged on why it needs these powers and has not yet put forward a convincing justification for them.

“We're pleased that peers, including Baroness Stowell and Lord Stevenson, are seeking to amend the bill to rectify this."

The other main areas that will be debated in the Lords will include end-to-end encryption, misinformation, and preventing online harms against women and girls.

A Department for Science, Innovation and Technology spokesperson said: "The Bill has been designed to protect Ofcom's independence while delivering appropriate oversight for Parliament and the government.

"The Secretary of State's powers are transparent and offer checks and balances to ensure Ofcom's implementation of the law continues to deliver on its intent as online harms evolve.”

Read our full explainer on the Online Safety Bill on The HouseLive.

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