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The Online Safety Bill will not fix everything – but this is an overdue start

The Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill has today published its report on the government's flagship online harms legislation [Photo credit: Alamy]

4 min read

There is little doubt that the exponential growth of the tech sector has come at a price for children, individuals and society.

For the last decade at least, companies have put their commercial interests ahead of the safety and security of users. Now, it has dawned on us that the sector’s ability to determine exactly what we engage with and to manipulate our preferences, from the high castle of Silicon Valley, is deadly. 

Enter the pre-legislative committee report published this morning. A joint committee of both houses, chaired by Damian Collins MP, was tasked with scrutinising the government’s long awaited Draft Online Safety Bill to make sure it is, as the Secretary of State Nadine Dorries MP demanded, “watertight”.

Our recommendations start by setting out the purpose of the Bill: to uphold UK law on and offline equally; to protect children, public health, democracy and freedom of speech, including the press, and to hold online services to account for the safety of their products. The recommendations put power back in the hands of parliament and the regulator by creating mandatory codes that set expectations of the companies and end the era of catastrophic disregard for the harmful outcomes of their business practices. Crucially, the report is practical. The online world is a human made, 100% engineered and can be optimised for any outcome.

Mandatory risk assessments will mean services assess the likely risks and put plans in place to mitigate them. A mandatory “safety-by-design” regime will require companies to identify features that amplify risk and consider – in advance – the circumstances in which they might redesign them to ensure safety, for example, adding people to groups without their consent, or recommending dozens of similar but unknown accounts, would be tempered by adding-in moments of friction to slow down spread, limiting numbers that can be contacted with a single click and removing fake accounts or bots.

The online world is a human made, 100% engineered and can be optimised for any outcome

I am particularly heartened by the recommendations that extend and embed protections for children. The committee argues that tech companies cannot be trusted with developing effective age assurance that protects children’s privacy, but without age assurance, they will continue to turn a blind eye to the 42 per cent of children under 13 who have social media accounts – or the persistent targeting of children with pornography, harmful material or age restricted services. Also crucial is the committee’s recommendation that the Bill be extended to any service “likely to be accessed by children.” This brings it in line with the Age Appropriate Design Code, which has brought in a raft of safety and privacy features.

Amongst the many harrowing pieces of evidence the committee received was testimony from the parents of two children who tragically took their own lives, Molly Russell and Frankie Thomas, including the battles of both families to get access to their children’s social media accounts after their death. As well as denying the families any sense of closure, they had to endure the ongoing horror that without this companies may be continuing to recommend the same pro-suicide material to other children. The committee has asked the government to ensure that the Online Safety Bill will include provision that allow coroners, regulators and in most cases parents, the right of access to material their children were engaging with before they died. 

Across the board, we heard that the Bill must be simpler and more definitive in what it was aiming to do – we have responded to both. We propose that the government take out the complex tier system based on the size and reach of the company and recommended that it be replaced by a risk profile so that the most “risky” services have the most to do. And the complex range of harms and duties have been replaced with a set of codes taking decision making away from Silicon Valley and basing it firmly on UK law and treaty obligations – with continued oversight of a new parliamentary committee.

The industrial revolution saw the arrival of 14 factory acts over as many years – it also brought with it street lighting, sewers and the invention of the weekend. The Online Safety Bill will not fix everything that the digital world requires – more will be needed. But this is an overdue start. The committee was from all parties, and both Houses, but it unanimously agreed on its recommendations. To quote the report summary, “these recommendations offer a holistic and watertight regulatory regime that will make the sector accountable to UK citizens, they are not a pick and mix, but indivisible. We urge the government to accept our recommendations and bring the Online Safety Bill to Parliament at the earliest opportunity”. 

Baroness Kidron is a crossbench peer, and a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Kidron - Banning children from social media would be short-sighted