Online Safety Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:13 pm on 17th January 2023.

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Amendment made: 42, page 198, line 19, leave out paragraph (c).—(Paul Scully.)

This amendment is consequential on the removal of clause 13 of the Bill as amended on Report.

Third Reading

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 8:38 pm, 17th January 2023

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It has been a long road to get here, and it has required a huge team effort that has included Members from across the House, the Joint Committee, Public Bill Committees, the Ministers who worked on this over the years in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and my predecessors as Secretaries of State. Together, we have had some robust and forthright debates, and it is thanks to Members’ determination, expertise and genuine passion on this issue that we have been able to get to this point today. Our differences of opinion across the House have been dwarfed by the fact that we are united in one single goal: protecting children online.

I have been clear since becoming Secretary of State that protecting children is the very reason that this Bill exists, and the safety of every child up and down the UK has driven this legislation from the start. After years of inaction, we want to hold social media companies to account and make sure that they are keeping their promises to their own users and to parents. No Bill in the world has gone as far as this one to protect children online. Since this legislation was introduced last year, the Government have gone even further and made a number of changes to enhance and broaden the protections in the Bill while also securing legal free speech. If something should be illegal, we should have the courage of our convictions to make it illegal, rather than creating a quasi-legal category. That is why my predecessor’s change that will render epilepsy trolling illegal is so important, and why I was determined to ensure that the promotion of self-harm, cyber-flashing and intimate image abuse are also made illegal once and for all in this Bill.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear, when the Bill gets to the other place, that content that glamorises eating disorders will be treated as seriously as content glamorising other forms of self-harm?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I met my right hon. Friend today to discuss that very point, which is particularly important and powerful. I look forward to continuing to work with her and the Ministry of Justice as we progress this Bill through the other place.

The changes are balanced with new protections for free speech and journalism—two of the core pillars of our democratic society. There are amendments to the definition of recognised news publishers to ensure that sanctioned outlets such as RT must not benefit.

Since becoming Secretary of State I have made a number of my own changes to the Bill. First and foremost, we have gone even further to boost protections for children. Social media companies will face a new duty on age limits so they can no longer turn a blind eye to the estimated 1.6 million underage children who currently use their sites. The largest platforms will also have to publish summaries of their risk assessments for illegal content and material that is harmful for children—finally putting transparency for parents into law.

I believe it is blindingly obvious and morally right that we should have a higher bar of protection when it comes to children. Things such as cyber-bullying, pornography and posts that depict violence do enormous damage. They scar our children and rob them of their right to a childhood. These measures are all reinforced by children and parents, who are given a real voice in the legislation by the inclusion of the Children’s Commissioner as a statutory consultee. The Bill already included provisions to make senior managers liable for failure to comply with information notices, but we have now gone further. Senior managers who deliberately fail children will face criminal liability. Today, we are drawing our line in the sand and declaring that the UK will be the world’s first country to comprehensively protect children online.

Those changes are completely separate to the changes I have made for adults. Many Members and stakeholders had concerns over the “legal but harmful” section of the Bill. They were concerned that it would be a serious threat to legal free speech and would set up a quasi-legal grey area where tech companies would be encouraged to take down content that is perfectly legal to say on our streets. I shared those concerns, so we have removed “legal but harmful” for adults. We have replaced it with a much simpler and fairer and, crucially, much more effective mechanism that gives adults a triple shield of protection. If it is illegal, it has to go. If it is banned under the company’s terms and conditions, it has to go.

Lastly, social media companies will now offer adults a range of tools to give them more control over what they see and interact with on their own feeds.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about things that are illegal offline but legal online. The Bill has still not defined a lot of content that could be illegal and yet promoted through advertising. As part of their ongoing work on the Bill and the online advertising review, will the Government establish the general principle that content that is illegal will be regulated whether it is an ad or a post?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I completely agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of this topic. That is exactly why we have the online advertising review, a piece of work we will be progressing to tackle the nub of the problem he identifies. We are protecting free speech while putting adults in the driving seat of their own online experience. The result is today’s Bill.

I thank hon. Members for their hard work on this Bill, including my predecessors, especially my right hon. Friend Ms Dorries. I thank all those I have worked with constructively on amendments, including my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), for Stone (Sir William Cash), for Dover (Mrs Elphicke), for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), and my right hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes).

I would like to put on record my gratitude for the hard work of my incredibly dedicated officials—in particular, Sarah Connolly, Orla MacRae and Emma Hindley, along with a number of others; I cannot name them all today, but I note their tremendous and relentless work on the Bill. Crucially, I thank the charities and devoted campaigners, such as Ian Russell, who have guided us and pushed the Bill forward in the face of their own tragic loss. Thanks to all those people, we now have a Bill that works.

Legislating online was never going to be easy, but it is necessary. It is necessary if we want to protect our values —the values that we protect in the real world every single day. In fact, the NSPCC called this Bill “a national priority”. The Children’s Commissioner called it

“a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect all children”.

But it is not just children’s organisations that are watching. Every parent across the country will know at first hand just how difficult it is to shield their children from inappropriate material when social media giants consistently put profit above children’s safety. This legislation finally puts it right.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 8:46 pm, 17th January 2023

I am relieved to finally speak on Third Reading of this important Bill. We have had a few false dawns along the way, but we are almost there. The Bill has seen parliamentary dramas, arcane procedures and a revolving door of Ministers. Every passing week throws up another example of why stronger online regulation is urgently needed, from the vile Andrew Tate and the damning Molly Russell inquest to threats to democracy and, most recently, Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and ripping up of its rules.

The power of the broadcast media in the past was that it reached into everybody’s living rooms. Today, in the digital age, social media is in every room in our home, in every workplace, in every school, at every event and, with the rise of virtual reality, also in our heads. It is hard to escape. What began as ideas on student campuses to join up networks of old friends are now multibillion-pound businesses that attract global advertising budgets and hold hugely valuable data and information on every aspect of our lives.

In the digital age, social media is a central influence on what we buy, often on what we think, how we interact and how we behave. The power and the money at stake are enormous, yet the responsibilities are minimal and the accountability non-existent. The need to constantly drive engagement and growth has brought with it real and actual harms to individuals, democracy, our economy, society and public health, with abusers and predators finding a new profitable home online. These harms are driven by business models and engagement algorithms that actively promote harmful content. The impact on children and young people can be particularly acute, even life-threatening.

It is for those reasons and others that, as a country and on a cross-party basis, we embarked many years ago on bringing communications from the analogue era into the digital age. Since the Bill was first mooted, we have had multiple Select Committee reports, a Joint Committee and even two Public Bill Committees. During that time, the pace of change has continued. Nobody had even heard of TikTok when we first discussed the Bill. Today, it is one of the main ways that young people get their news. It is a stark reminder of just how slow-moving Government legislation is and how we will probably need to return to these issues once again very soon—I am sorry to break that to everybody—but we have got there for now. We will at least establish a regulator with some tough powers, albeit with a much narrower scope than was originally conceived.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

I warmly endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. Does she agree with Vicky Ford, who intervened on the Secretary of State, that further work is needed to prevent platforms from promoting different forms of eating disorders?

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I absolutely endorse those comments and I will come on to that briefly.

We never thought that the Online Safety Bill was perfect and we have been trying to work with the Government to improve it at every stage. Some of that has paid off and I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend Alex Davies-Jones for her truly brilliant work, which has been ably supported by my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley. I thank the various Ministers for listening to our proposals on scam ads, epilepsy trolling and dealing with small but high harm platforms, and I thank the various Secretaries of State for their constructive approaches. Most of all, I, too, thank the campaigners, charities and families who have been most affected by the Bill.

I welcome today’s last-minute concessions. We have been calling for criminal liability from the start as a means to drive culture change, and we look forward to seeing the detail of the measure when it is tabled in the other place. I also welcome that the Bill will finally outlaw conversion practices, including for trans people, and will take tougher action on people traffickers who advertise online.

On major aspects, however, the Government have moved in the wrong direction. They seem to have lost their mettle and watered down the Bill significantly by dumping whole swathes of it, including many of the harms that it was originally designed to deal with. There are still protections for children, albeit that age verification is difficult and many children pass themselves off as older online, but all the previous work on tackling wider harms has been dropped.

In failing to reconcile harms that are not individually illegal with the nature of powerful platforms that promote engagement and outcomes that are harmful, the Government have let the big tech companies off the hook and left us all more at risk. Online hate, disinformation, sensationalism, abuse, terrorism, racism, self-harm, eating disorders, incels, misogyny, antisemitism, and many other things, are now completely out of scope of the Bill and will continue to proliferate. That is a major loophole that massively falls short of the Bill’s original intention.

I hope that the other place will return to some of the core principles of the duty of care, giving the regulator wider powers to direct terms and conditions, and getting transparency and accountability for the engagement algorithms and economic business models that monetise misery, as Ian Russell described it. I am confident that the other place will consider those issues carefully, sensitively and intelligently. As I have said, if the Bill is not strengthened, it will fall to the next Labour Government to bring in further legislation. For now, I am pleased to finally be able to support the Online Safety Bill to pass its Third Reading.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:52 pm, 17th January 2023

It has taken a while to get to this point; there have been hours and hours of scrutiny and so much time has been spent by campaigners and external organisations. I have received more correspondence on this Bill from people who really know what they are talking about than on any other I have worked on during my time in the House. I specifically thank the NSPCC and the Mental Health Foundation, which have provided me with a lot of information and advice about the amendments that we have tabled.

The internet is wonderful, exciting and incredibly useful, but it is also harmful, damaging and scary. The Bill is about trying to make it less harmful, damaging and scary while allowing people to still experience the wonderful, exciting and useful parts of it. The SNP will not vote against the Bill on Third Reading, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the issues that we still have with it.

I am concerned that the Government keep saying Children’s “Commissioner” when there are a number of Children’s Commissioners, and it is the Children’s Commissioner for England who has been added as a consultee, not the other ones. That is the decision that they have made, but they need to be clear when they are talking about it.

On protecting children, I am still concerned that there are issues on which the Bill is a little bit too social media-centric and does not necessarily take into account some of the ways that children generally interact with the internet, such as talking to their friends on Fortnite, talking to people they do not know on Fortnite and talking to people on Roblox. Things that are not caught by social media and things that are different are not covered by this as well as I would like. I am concerned that there is less an ability for children not to take part in risky features—to switch off private messaging and livestreaming, for example—than there is just to switch off types of content or features.

Lastly, on the changes that have been made, I do not know what people want to say that they felt they could not say as a result of the previous version of the Bill. I do not know why the Government feel it is okay to say, “Right, we’re concerned about ‘legal but harmful’, because we want people to be able to promote eating disorder content or because we want people to be able to promote self-harm content.” I am sure they do not—I am sure no Ministers want people to be able to promote that—so why have they made this change? Not one person has been able to tell me what they believe they would not be able to say under the previous iteration of the Bill. I have not had one person be able to say that. Ministers can just say “free speech” however much they like, but it does not mean anything if they cannot provide examples of what exactly it is that they believe somebody should be able to say that they could not under the previous iteration of the Bill.

I am glad that we have a Bill and I am glad to hear that a future Labour Government might change the legislation to make it better. I hope this will provide a safer environment for children online, and I hope we can get the Bill implemented as soon as it is through the Lords.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons) 8:56 pm, 17th January 2023

I know how unpopular it can be at 9 o’clock at night to detain the House further. However, I did speak on previous stages of the Bill, and I want to speak about a couple of issues this evening.

I thank the Secretary of State for her meetings with me and members of some of our Jewish community groups about the change to “legal but harmful”. She knows we were not particularly happy when we heard the first iteration of what was proposed, but I think we have got to a position where Jewish community groups have been able to row in behind this Bill. It may be imperfect in some ways, but it is certainly a lot better than the starting point we were coming from. I also pay tribute to the shadow Minister, Alex Davies-Jones, who has also worked very hard, particularly on the issue of antisemitism. As I say, I thank the Secretary of State for getting us into a position, through her hard work, where we and groups such as the Centre for Countering Digital Hate are very supportive of the Bill.

I and Sarah Jones were in Washington with the Antisemitism Policy Trust just before Christmas, when we met Members of Congress and Senators, who told us how much this piece of legislation was very much world-leading and very much an indicator for where they intend or would like to get to, although things are little bit more complicated there because of the constitutional issues. This is indeed a world-beating piece of legislation. As with all legislation, it is imperfect, but it is a piece of legislation of which we can still be very proud.

I am pleased that we have dispensed with some of the nonsense about free speech arguments, because some of those put forward were nonsense. There is a misunderstanding by some people—I have to say, sadly, on my side of politics—that free speech is presented as an ability to say anything without consequences, but that is not what free speech is. We should always remember that there are consequences to some of the things we say, and there should be consequences.

I want to speak briefly about the issue of conspiracy theories and this legislation, particularly antisemitic conspiracy theories. I am sorry to detain the House, but I do think this is an important issue at the moment, given that we have had a Member of this House in recent times promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. The juxtaposition of covid conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories with antisemitism is, I am afraid, one that we see all too often in the online space. The Bill will do something to address that, but we have to do more.

I want to give a couple of examples in the few minutes I have of what coronavirus conspiracy theories and antisemitism have looked like. We have had huge amounts of online material produced that suggests everything from “covid is not real and is a Jewish conspiracy” to “covid is real and was designed and spread by Jews”. We have had a celebration of Jewish deaths through conspiracy theories, and even the promotion of conspiracy theories around vaccines and the role of Jews. The Antisemitism Policy Trust, and the CST in its briefing “Covid, conspiracies & Jew-hate”, highlight the anti-vaccine element of antisemitism. We have seen gratuitous online content of Jews being presented as scientists holding syringes, and Jews who work as senior executives in various pharmaceutical companies have been targeted because of their faith. We have even seen the menorah presented with lots of syringes on it. All that is deeply antisemitic, conspiracy theory hate, based around the vaccine and the antivaxxer movement.

A colleague of ours recently found himself in trouble, quite rightly—I praise our Chief Whip for acting so swiftly on this—for promoting a tweet that likened the covid vaccine to the holocaust. Although that in and of itself is not necessarily antisemitic, we have seen anti-covid groups using gratuitous holocaust imagery in their campaign against the vaccines and the promotion of other covid conspiracies. It is not a very big step from promoting a holocaust image to entering into deep and dangerous antisemitism, and I am afraid that a lot of the anti-covid and anti-vaxxer movement find themselves in that space. It is vital that people in government and across this House call that nonsense out for what it is, which is dangerous, anti-science crap.

The Bill will go some way to addressing that, particularly the elements that are related to antisemitism and illegal content, but we need to do a lot more in the future. I am a big supporter of the Bill, and pay particular tribute to the Secretary of State, her officials and ministerial team for getting it to this point, but there will be a lot more to do. I am afraid this hate is there and is not going away. Since I called out what happened last week my inbox has exploded with all sorts of conspiracy theory nonsense, threats, and antisemitic emails and calls to the office. I know the Chief Whip has suffered the same. There is a lot more to do. I hope I have not detained the House for too long, and I support the Bill. It is a good start, it is world-leading, but we will have to come back to the issue as technology develops, because there will be more to do in this space. I end by associating myself with the calls with regards to advertising. The amount of advertising money in some of these hate sites is staggering and frightening, and we will have to do more on that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.