Amendment 4

Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Baroness Fox of Buckley:

Moved by Baroness Fox of Buckley

4: Clause 3, page 3, line 17, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert “the service has at least one million monthly United Kingdom users.”Member’s explanatory statement This amendment replaces the two tests currently set out in subsection (5) of clause 3, relating to a service’s links with the United Kingdom, with a requirement that the service have at least a million monthly United Kingdom users.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, in moving Amendment 4, I will also speak to Amendments 6 to 8 and 12 and consequential Amendments 288 and 305, largely grouped under the heading “exemptions”. In this group I am also particularly sympathetic to Amendment 9 in the names of the noble Lords, Moylan and Lord Vaizey, and I will leave them to motivate that. I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, an explanation for his Amendment 9A.

Last Wednesday we discussed the purposes of the Bill, and there was much agreement across the Chamber on one issue at least: that we need to stay focused and make sure that an already highly complex piece of legislation does not become even more unwieldy. My concern in general is that the Bill already suffers throughout from being overly broad in its aims, resulting in restricting the online experience and expressions of everyone. This series of amendments is about trying to rein in the scope, allowing us to focus on clear targets rather than a one-size-fits-all Bill that sweeps all in its wake with perhaps unintended and damaging consequences.

The Bill creates an extraordinary set of regulatory burdens on tens of thousands of British businesses, micro-communities and tech platforms, no matter the size. The impact assessment claims that 25,000 businesses are in scope, and that is considered a conservative estimate. This implies that an extraordinary range of platforms, from Mumsnet and Wikipedia to whisky-tasting forums and Reddit, will be caught up in this Bill. Can we find a way of removing the smaller platforms from scope? It will destroy too many of them if they have to comply with the regulatory burden created with huge Silicon Valley behemoths in mind.

Let us consider some of the regulatory duties that these entities are expected to comply with. They will need to undertake extensive assessments that must be repeated whenever a product changes. They will need to proactively remove certain types of content, involving assessing the risk of users encountering each type of illegal content, the speed of dissemination and functionality, the design of the platform and the nature and severity of the risk of harms presented to individual users. This will mean assessing their user base and implementing what are effectively surveillance systems to monitor all activity on their platforms.

Let us consider what a phrase such as “prevent from encountering” would mean to a web host such as Wikipedia. It would mean that it would need to scan and proactively analyse millions of edits across 250 languages for illegality under UK-specific law and then block content in defiance of the wishes of its own user community. There is much more, of course. Rest assured, Ofcom’s guidance and risk assessment will, over time, increase the regulatory complexity and the burdens involved.

Those technological challenges do not even consider the mountain of paperwork and administrative obligations that will be hugely costly and time consuming. All that might be achievable, if onerous, for larger platforms. But for smaller ones it could prove a significant problem, with SMEs and organisations working with a public benefit remit particularly vulnerable. Platforms with the largest profits and the most staff dedicated to compliance will, as a consequence, dominate at the expense of start-ups, small companies and community-run platforms.

No doubt the Government and the Minister will assure us that the duties are not so onerous and that they are manageable and proportionate. The impact assessment estimates that implementing the Bill will cost businesses £2.5 billion over the first 10 years, but all the commentators I have read think this is likely to be a substantial underestimate, especially when we are told in the same impact assessment that the legal advice is estimated to cost £39.23 per hour. I do not know what lawyers the Government hang out with, but they appear not to have a clue about the going rate for specialist law firms.

Also, what about the internal staff time? Again, the impact assessment assumes that staff will require only 30 minutes to familiarise themselves with the requirements of the legislation and 90 minutes to read, assess and change the terms and conditions in response to the requirements. Is this remotely serious? Even working through the groups of amendments has taken me hours. It has been like doing one of those 1,000-piece jigsaws, but at least at the end of those you get to see the complete picture. Instead, I felt as though somebody had come in and thrown all the pieces into the air again. I was as confused as ever.

If dealing with groups of amendments to this Bill is complex, that is nothing on the Bill itself, which is dense and often impenetrable. Last week, the Minister helpfully kept telling us to read the Explanatory Notes. I have done that several times and I am still in a muddle, yet somehow the staff of small tech companies will conquer all this and the associated regulatory changes in an hour and a half.

Many fear that this will replicate the worst horrors of GDPR, which, according to some estimates, led to an 8% reduction in the profits of smaller firms while it had little or no effect on the profits of large tech companies. That does not even take into account the cost of the near nervous breakdowns that GDPR caused small organisations, as I know from my colleagues at the Academy of Ideas.

These amendments try to tackle this disproportionate burden on smaller platforms—those companies that are, ironically, often useful challenges and antidotes to big tech’s dominance. The amendments would exempt them unless there is a good reason for specific platforms to be in scope. Of course, cutting out those in scope may not appeal to everyone here. From looking at the ever-increasing amendments list, it seems that some noble Lords have an appetite for expanding the number of services the legislation will apply to; we have already heard the discussion about app stores and online gaming. But we should note that the Government have carved out other exemptions for certain services that are excluded from the new regulatory system. They have not included emails, SMS messages, one-to-one oral communications and so on. I am suggesting some extra exemptions and that we remove services with fewer than 1 million monthly UK users. Ofcom would have the power to issue the provider with a notice bringing them into scope, but only based on reasonable grounds, having identified a safety risk and with 30 days’ notice.

If we do not tackle this, I fear that there is a substantial, serious and meaningful risk that smaller platforms based outside and inside the UK will become inaccessible to British users. It is notable that over 1,000 US news websites blocked European users during the EU’s introduction of GDPR, if noble Lords remember. Will there be a similar response to this law? What, for example, will the US search engine DuckDuckGo conclude? The search engine emphasises privacy and refuses to gather information on its users, meaning that it will be unable to fulfil the duties contained in the Bill of identifying or tailoring search results to users based on their age. Are we happy for it to go?

I fear that this Bill will reduce the number of tech platforms operating in the UK. This is anti-competitive. I do not say that because I have a particular commitment to competition and the free market, by the way. I do so because competition is essential and important for users’ choice and empowerment, and for free speech—something I fear the Bill is threatening. Indeed, the Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee’s extensive inquiry into the implications of giving large tech companies what is effectively a monopoly on defining which speech is free concluded:

“Increasing competition is crucial to promoting freedom of expression online. In a more competitive market, platforms would have to be more responsive to users’ concerns about freedom of expression and other rights”.

That is right. If users are concerned that a platform is failing to uphold their freedom of expression, they can join a different platform with greater ease if there is a wide choice. Conversely, users who are concerned that they do not want to view certain types of material would be more easily able to choose another platform that proscribes said material in its terms and conditions.

I beg to move the amendment as a way of defending diversity, choice and innovation—and as a feeble attempt to make the Bill proportionate.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 5:45, 25 April 2023

My Lords, before I speak to my Amendment 9, which I will be able to do fairly briefly because a great deal of the material on which my case rests has already been given to the Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, I will make the more general and reflective point that there are two different views in the Committee that somehow need to be reconciled over the next few weeks. There is a group of noble Lords who are understandably and passionately concerned about child safety. In fact, we all share that concern. There are others of us who believe that this Bill, its approach and the measures being inserted into it will have massive ramifications outside the field of child safety, for adults, of course, but also for businesses, as the noble Baroness explained. The noble Baroness and I, and others like us, believe that these are not sufficiently taken into account either by the Bill or by those pressing for measures to be harsher and more restrictive.

Some sort of balance needs to be found. At Second Reading my noble friend the Minister said that the balance had been struck in the right place. It is quite clear that nobody really agrees with that, except on the principle, which I think is always a cop-out, that if everyone disagrees with you, you must be right, which I have never logically understood in any sense at all. I hope my noble friend will not resort to claiming that he has got it right simply because everyone disagrees with him in different ways.

My amendment is motivated by the considerations set out by the noble Baroness, which I therefore do not need to repeat. It is the Government’s own assessment that between 20,000 and 25,000 businesses will be affected by the measures in this Bill. A great number of those—some four-fifths—are small businesses or micro-businesses. The Government appear to think in their assessment that only 120 of those are high risk. The reason they think they are high risk is not that they are engaged in unpleasant activities but simply that they are engaged in livestreaming and contacting new people. That might be for nefarious purposes but equally, it might not, so the 120 we need to worry about could actually be a very small number. We handle this already through our own laws; all these businesses would still be subject to existing data protection laws and complying with the law generally on what they are allowed to publish and broadcast. It would not be a free-for-all or a wild west, even among that very small number of businesses.

My Amendment 9 takes a slightly different approach to dealing with this. I do not in any way disagree with or denigrate the approach taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, but my approach would be to add two categories to the list of exemptions in the schedules. The first of these is services provided by small and medium-sized enterprises. We do not have to define those because there is already a law that helps define them for us: Section 33 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015. My proposal is that we take that definition, and that those businesses that comply with it be outside the scope of the Bill.

The second area that I would propose exempting was also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley: community-based services. The largest of these, and the one that frequently annoys us because it gets things wrong, is Wikipedia. I am a great user of Wikipedia but I acknowledge that it does make errors. Of course, most of the errors it makes, such as saying, “Lord Moylan has a wart on the end of his nose”, would not be covered by the Bill anyway. Nothing in the Bill will force people to correct factual statements that have been got wrong—my year of birth or country of birth, or whatever. That is not covered. Those are the things they usually get wrong and that normally annoy us when we see them.

However, I do think that these services are extremely valuable. Wikipedia is an immense achievement and a tremendous source of knowledge and information for people. The fact that it has been put together in this organic, community-led way over a number of years, in so many languages, is a tremendous advantage and a great human advance. Yet, under the proposed changes, Wikipedia would not be able to operate its existing model of people posting their comments.

Currently, you go on Wikipedia and you can edit it. Now, I know this would not apply to any noble Lords but, in the other place, it has been suggested that MPs have discovered how to do this. They illicitly and secretly go on to and edit their own pages, usually in a flattering way, so it is possible to do this. There is no prior restraint, and no checking in advance. There are moderators at Wikipedia—I do not know whether they are employed—who review what has been done over a period, but they do not do what this Bill requires, which is checking in advance.

It is not simply about Wikipedia; there are other community sites. Is it sensible that Facebook should be responsible if a little old lady alters the information on a community Facebook page about what is happening in the local parish? Why should Facebook be held responsible for that? Why would we want it to be responsible for it—and how could it do it without effectively censoring ordinary activities that people want to carry out, using the advantages of the internet that have been so very great?

What I am asking is not dramatic. We have many laws in which we very sensibly create exemptions for small and medium-sized enterprises. I am simply asking that this law be considered under that heading as well, and similarly for Wikipedia and community-based sites. It is slightly unusual that we have had to consider that; it is not normal, but it is very relevant to this Bill and I very much hope the Government will agree to it.

The answer that I would not find satisfactory—I say this in advance for the benefit of my noble friend the Minister, in relation to this and a number of other amendments I shall be moving in Committee—is that it will all be dealt with by Ofcom. That would not be good enough. We are the legislators and we want to know how these issues will be dealt with, so that the legitimate objectives of the Bill can be achieved without causing massive disruption, cost and disbenefit to adults.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendment 9, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and in particular the proposed new paragraph 10A to Schedule 1. I hope I will find myself more in tune with the mood of the Committee on this amendment than on previous ones. I would be interested to know whether any noble Lords believe that Ofcom should be spending its limited resources supervising a site like Wikipedia under the new regime, as it seems to me patently obvious that that is not what we intend; it is not the purpose of the legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, is right to remind us that one of the joys of the internet is that you buy an internet connection, plug it in and there is a vast array of free-to-use services which are a community benefit, produced by the community for the community, with no harm within them. What we do not want to do is interfere with or somehow disrupt that ecosystem. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is right to remind us that there is a genuine risk of people withdrawing from the UK market. We should not sidestep that. People who try to be law-abiding will look at these requirements and ask themselves, “Can I meet them?” If the Wikimedia Foundation that runs Wikipedia does not think it can offer its service in a lawful way, it will have to withdraw from the UK market. That would be to the detriment of children in the United Kingdom, and certainly not to their benefit.

There are principle-based and practical reasons why we do not want Ofcom to be operating in this space. The principle-based one is that it makes me uncomfortable that a Government would effectively tell their regulator how to manage neutral information sites such as Wikipedia. There are Governments around the world who seek to do that; we do not want to be one of those.

The amendment attempts to define this public interest, neutral, informational service. It happens to be user-to-user but it is not like Facebook, Instagram or anything similar. I would feel much more comfortable making it clear in law that we are not asking Ofcom to interfere with those kinds of services. The practical reason is the limited time Ofcom will have available. We do not want it to be spending time on things that are not important.

Definitions are another example of how, with the internet, it can often be extremely hard to draw bright lines. Functionalities bleed into each other. That is not necessarily a problem, until you try to write something into law; then, you find that your definition unintentionally captures a service that you did not intend to capture, or unintentionally misses out a service that you did intend to be in scope. I am sure the Minister will reject the amendment because that is what Ministers do; but I hope that, if he is not willing to accept it, he will at least look at whether there is scope within the Bill to make it clear that Wikipedia is intended to be outside it.

Paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 refers to “limited functionality services”. That is a rich vein to mine. It is clear that the intention is to exclude mainstream media, for example. It refers to “provider content”. In this context, Encyclopaedia Britannica is not in scope but Wikipedia is, the difference being that Wikipedia is constructed by users, while Encyclopaedia Britannica is regarded as being constructed by a provider. The Daily Mail is outside scope; indeed, all mainstream media are outside scope. Anyone who declares themselves to be media—we will debate this later on—is likely to be outside scope.

Such provider exemption should be offered to other, similar services, even if they happen to be constructed from the good will of users as opposed to a single professional author. I hope the Minister will be able to indicate that the political intent is not that we should ask Ofcom to spend time and energy regulating Wikipedia-like services. If so, can he point to where in the legislation we might get that helpful interpretation, in order to ensure that Ofcom is focused on what we want it to be focused on and not on much lower priority issues?

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

I will speak to a couple of the amendments in this group. First, small is not safe, and you cannot necessarily see these platforms in isolation. For example, there is an incel group that has only 4,000 active users, but it posts a great deal on YouTube and has 24.2 million users in that context. So we have to be clear that small and safe are not the same thing.

However, I am sympathetic to the risk-based approach. I should probably have declared an interest as someone who has given money to Wikipedia on several occasions to keep it going. I ask the Minister for some clarity on the systems and processes of the Bill, and whether the risk profile of Wikipedia—which does not entice you in and then follow you for the next six months once you have looked at something—is far lower than something very small that gets hold of you and keeps on going. I say that particularly in relation to children, but I feel it for myself also.

Finally, to the noble Lords who are promoting this group of amendments I say that I would be very supportive if they could find some interventions that simplify the processes companies have to do in the early stages to establish levels of risk, and then we can get heavy on the mitigation of harm. That is something upon which we all agree; if we could find a very low bar of entry, check whether there is harm and then escalate, I believe that would be something we could all work on together.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP 6:00, 25 April 2023

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 4 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley.

At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Morrow raised the point that the Bill needs to cover all online pornography. A factsheet on the Bill, helpfully circulated to Peers last week by the Government, says:

“The Bill’s regulatory framework will cover all online sites with pornographic content, including commercial pornography sites, social media, video-sharing platforms and fora. It will also cover search engines, which play a significant role in enabling children to access pornography”.

This is a welcome commitment but I would like to explore it further.

The Government say “all”, but the definition of which services are in scope of the Bill, as set out in Clause 3(5) and Clause 71(4), requires that there are either

“a significant number of United Kingdom users, or … United Kingdom users form one of the target markets for the service (or the only target market)”.

At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Morrow asked the Minister what will be considered as “significant”. Is it significant in terms of the total UK adult users who could use a service, or significant in terms of potential global users?

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, is exploring the same issue in her Amendment 4. She is proposing that the Bill’s current definition be replaced with something much easier to understand: that a site must have at least 1 million users per month in the UK to be within the scope of the Bill. That definition is certainly clear. However, I am looking forward to hearing whether it reflects the Government’s intention. For my part, I am concerned about what it might mean for clarifying which pornographic websites would fall into Part 3.

In December, the Government published an analysis carried out in January 2021 by the British Board of Film Classification on the top 200 pornographic websites. It reported that these 200 sites received 76% of the total UK visits to adult sites, based on data during August 2020. Ofcom published a similar list of the top 10 sites visited in September 2020—the site at number 10 had 3.8 million visitors. We do not know how many visitors there were to websites 100 or 200, but it is not unreasonable to speculate that it could be less than a million and would therefore fall outside the definition proposed by the noble Baroness, and nor is it clear whether those websites would fall within the Government’s original definition.

It is important for the Minister to tell the Committee quite clearly whether he expects the top 200 pornographic websites to be within the scope of Parts 3 and 5 of the Bill. If he does, I ask him to explain how that will be possible within the current definition in the Bill, not because I am trying to trip him up but as a genuine inquiry that the Bill does what we are expect it to do. If he does not expect the top 200 pornographic websites to be in scope, how many does he estimate would fall within Parts 3 and 5? Either way, it seems to me that there could be pornographic websites accessed in the United Kingdom that are not required to have age verification to protect those aged under 18 from accessing this content.

As I said, I doubt that this is what parents expect from this flagship Bill, especially as the Government set out in their factsheet that their own commissioned evidence says,

“exposure to pornography may impact children's perceptions of sex and relationships, may lead to replication of practices found in pornography, increased likelihood of engaging in sexual activities and harmful or aggressive behaviour, and reduced concern for consent from partners”.

It seems to me that “significant” should focus on the significant harm a website or content provider would cause if it were accessed in the UK. The number of visitors or popularity of the site should be irrelevant when considering whether or not children should be allowed to access it. My view is quite simple: if a website, social media or content provider wishes to host pornographic material, that is of potential significant harm to children and should be age-verified. I am therefore interested, given what the Government have said previously, to know whether the Minister agrees that all pornographic content must be age-verified if it is to be accessed in the UK. That is certainly what I believe most parents expect, and I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Strathcarron Lord Strathcarron Conservative

I will speak in support of my noble friend Lord Moylan and Amendment 9. I declare an interest as an author and publisher.

Last week, we had the London Book Fair, and proposed new paragraph 10A could read almost like an executive summary of the main talking point, which was how AI will influence all aspects of the media but particularly publishing. For the sake of future-proofing, paragraph 10A would be a particularly useful step to adopt. Proposed new paragraph 10B would be in the interest of fairness because publishing, and a lot of media, is made up of micro-businesses, often one-man or one-woman companies. This is certain to happen with AI as well, as the intermediary roles are taken up by these. In the interest of future-proofing and fairness, I recommend this amendment.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative

My Lords, as my name is on Amendment 9, I speak to support these amendments and say that they are worthy of debate. As your Lordships know, I am extremely supportive of the Bill and hope that it will be passed in short order. It is much needed and overdue that we have the opportunity for legislation to provide us with a regulator that is able to hold platforms to account, protect users where it can and enhance child safety online. I can think of no better regulator for that role than Ofcom.

I have listened to the debate with great interest. Although I support the intentions of my noble friend Lord Moylan’s amendment, I am not sure I agree with him that there are two cultures in this House, as far as the Bill is concerned; I think everybody is concerned about child safety. However, these amendments are right to draw attention to the huge regulatory burden that this legislation can potentially bring, and to the inadvertent bad consequences it will bring for many of the sites that we all depend upon and use.

I have not signed many amendments that have been tabled in this Committee because I have grown increasingly concerned, as has been said by many others, that the Bill has become a bit like the proverbial Christmas tree where everyone hangs their own specific concern on to the legislation, turning it into something increasingly unwieldy and difficult to navigate. I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, put it extremely well when she effectively brought to life what it would be like to run a small website and have to comply with this legislation. That is not to say that certain elements of micro-tweaking are not welcome—for example, the amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on giving coroners access to data—but we should be concerned about the scope of the Bill and the burden that it may well put on individual websites.

This is in effect the Wikipedia amendment, put forward and written in a sort of wiki way by this House—a probing amendment in Committee to explore how we can find the right balance between giving Ofcom the powers it needs to hold platforms to account and not unduly burdening websites that all of us agree present a very low risk and whose provenance, if you like, does not fit easily within the scope of the Bill.

I keep saying that I disagree with my noble friend Lord Moylan. I do not—I think he is one of the finest Members of this House—but, while it is our job to provide legislation to set the framework for how Ofcom regulates, we in this House should also recognise that in the real world, as I have also said before, this legislation is simply going to be the end of the beginning. Ofcom will have to find its way forward in how it exercises the powers that Parliament gives it, and I suspect it will have its own list of priorities in how it approaches these issues, who it decides to hold to account and who it decides to enforce against. A lot of its powers will rest not simply on the legislation that we give it but on the relationship that it builds with the platforms it is seeking to regulate.

For example, I have hosted a number of lunches for Google in this House with interested Peers, and it has been interesting to get that company’s insight into its working relationship with Ofcom. By the way, I am by no means suggesting that that is a cosy relationship, but it is at least a relationship where the two sides are talking to each other, and that is how the effectiveness of these powers will be explored.

I urge noble Lords to take these amendments seriously and take what the spirit of the amendments is seeking to put forward, which is to be mindful of the regulatory burden that the Bill imposes; to be aware that the Bill will not, simply by being passed, solve the kinds of issues that we are seeking to tackle in terms of the most egregious content that we find on the internet; and that, effectively, Ofcom’s task once this legislation is passed will be the language of priorities.

Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Conservative

My Lords, this is not the first time in this Committee, and I suspect it will not be the last, when I rise to stand somewhere between my noble friend Lord Vaizey and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I am very taken by her focus on risk assessments and by the passionate defences of Wikipedia that we have heard, which really are grounded in a sort of commoner’s risk assessment that we can all understand.

Although I have sympathy with the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, about small and medium-sized businesses being overburdened by regulation, I am less taken with the amendments on that subject precisely because small tech businesses become big tech businesses extremely quickly. It is worth pointing out that TikTok did not even exist when Parliament began debating this Bill. I wonder what our social media landscape would have been like if the Bill had existed in law before social media started. We as a country should want global tech companies to be born in the UK, but we want their founders—who, sadly, even today, are predominantly young white men who do not yet have children—to think carefully about the risks inherent in the services they are creating, and we know we need to do that at the beginning of those tech companies’ journeys, not once they have reached 1 million users a month.

While I have sympathy with the desire of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, not to overburden, just as my noble friend Lord Vaizey has said, we should take our lead from the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron: we need a risk assessment even for small and medium-sized businesses. It just needs to be a risk assessment that is fit for their size.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 6:15, 25 April 2023

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Harding. If one is permitted to say this in the digital age, I am on exactly the same page as she is.

There are two elements to the debate on this group. It is partly about compliance, and I absolutely understand the point about the costs of that, but I also take comfort from some of the things that the noble Lord. Lord Vaizey, said about the way that Ofcom is going to deliver the regulation and the very fact that this is going to be largely not a question of interpretation of the Act, when it comes down to it, but is going to be about working with the codes of practice. That will be a lot more user-friendly than simply having to go to expensive expert lawyers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said—not that I have anything against expensive expert lawyers.

I am absolutely in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that small is not safe. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, described, small can become big. We looked at this in our Joint Committee and recommended to the Government that they should take a more nuanced approach to regulation, based not just on size and high-level functionality but on factors such as risk, reach, user base, safety performance and business model. All those are extremely relevant but risk is the key, right at the beginning. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, also said that Reddit should potentially be outside, but Reddit has had its own problems, as we know. On that front, I am on absolutely the same page as those who have spoken about keeping us where we are.

The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, has been very cunning in the way that he has drawn up his Amendment 9. I am delighted to be on the same page as my noble friend —we are making progress—but I agree only with the first half of the amendment because, like the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, I am a financial contributor to Wikipedia. A lot of us depend on Wikipedia; we look up the ages of various Members of this House when we see them in full flight and think, “Good heavens!” Biographies are an important part of this area. We have all had Jimmy Wales saying, as soon as we get on to Wikipedia, “You’ve already looked at Wikipedia 50 times this month. Make a contribution”, and that is irresistible. There is quite a strong case there. It is risk-based so it is not inconsistent with the line taken by a number of noble Lords in all this. I very much hope that we can get something out of the Minister—maybe some sort of sympathetic noises for a change—at this stage so that we can work up something.

I must admit that the briefing from Wikimedia, which many of us have had, was quite alarming. If the Bill means that we do not have users in high-risk places then we will find that adults get their information from other sources that are not as accurate as Wikipedia —maybe from ChatGPT or GPT-4, which the noble Lord, Lord Knight, is clearly very much an expert in—and that marginalised websites are shut down.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

For me, one of the features of the schedule’s list of exempted sites is foreign state entities. Therefore, we could end up in the absurd situation where you could not read about the Ukraine war on Wikipedia, but you would be able to read about the Ukraine war on the Russian Government website.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, if we needed an example of something that gave us cause for concern, that would be it; but a very good case has been made, certainly for the first half of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and we on these Benches support it.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, it has certainly been an interesting debate, and I am grateful to noble Lords on all sides of the Committee for their contributions and considerations. I particularly thank the noble Lords who tabled the amendments which have shaped the debate today.

In general, on these Benches, we believe that the Bill offers a proportionate approach to tackling online harms. We feel that granting some of the exemptions proposed in this group would be unintentionally counterproductive and would raise some unforeseen difficulties. The key here—and it has been raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Kidron, and, just now, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who talked about the wider considerations of the Joint Committee and factors that should be taken into account—is that we endorse a risk-based approach. In this debate, it is very important that we take ourselves back to that, because that is the key.

My view is that using other factors, such as funding sources or volunteer engagement in moderation, cuts right across this risk-based approach. To refer to Amendment 4, it is absolutely the case that platforms with fewer than 1 million UK monthly users have scope to create considerable harm. Indeed, noble Lords will have seen that later amendments call for certain small platforms to be categorised on the basis of the risk—and that is the important word—that they engender, rather than the size of the platform, which, unfortunately, is something of a crude measure. The point that I want to make to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is that it is not about the size of the businesses and how they are categorised but what they actually do. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, rightly said that small is not safe, for all the reasons that were explained, including by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding.

Amendment 9 would exempt small and medium-sized enterprises and certain other organisations from most of the Bill’s provisions. I am in no doubt about the well-meaning nature of this amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey. Indeed, there may well be an issue about how start-ups and entrepreneur unicorns cope with the regulatory framework. We should attend to that, and I am sure that the Minister will have something to say about it. But I also expect that the Minister will outline why this would actually be unhelpful in combating many of the issues that this Bill is fundamentally designed to deal with if we were to go down the road of these exclusions.

In particular, granting exemptions simply on the basis of a service’s size could lead to a situation where user numbers are capped or perhaps even where platforms are deliberately broken up to avoid regulation. This would have an effect that none of us in this Chamber would want to see because it would embed harmful content and behaviour rather than helping to reduce them.

Referring back to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, in his reflection. I, too, have not experienced the two sides of the Chamber that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, described. I feel that the Chamber has always been united on the matter of child safety and in understanding the ramifications for business. It is the case that good legislation must always seek a balance, but, to go back to the point about excluding small and medium-sized enterprises, to call them a major part of the British economy is a bit of an understatement when they account for 99.9% of the business population. In respect of the exclusion of community-based services, including Wikipedia—and we will return to this in the next group—there is nothing for platforms to fear if they have appropriate systems in place. Indeed, there are many gains to be had for community-based services such as Wikipedia from being inside the system. I look forward to the further debate that we will have on that.

I turn to Amendment 9A in the name of my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth, who is unable to participate in this section of the debate. It probes how the Bill’s measures would apply to specialised search services. Metasearch engines such as Skyscanner have expressed concern that the legislation might impose unnecessary burdens on services that pose little risk of hosting the illegal content targeted by the Bill. Perhaps the Minister, in his response, could confirm whether or not such search engines are in scope. That would perhaps be helpful to our deliberations today.

While we on these Benches are not generally supportive of exemptions, the reality is that there are a number of online search services that return content that would not ordinarily be considered harmful. Sites such as Skyscanner and Expedia, as we all know, allow people to search for and book flights and other travel services such as car hire. Obviously, as long as appropriate due diligence is carried out on partners and travel agents, the scope for users to encounter illegal or harmful material appears to be minimal and returns us to the point of having a risk-based approach. We are not necessarily advocating for a carve-out from the Bill, but it would perhaps be helpful to our deliberations if the Minister could outline how such platforms will be expected to interact with the Ofcom-run online safety regime.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I am sympathetic to arguments that we must avoid imposing disproportionate burdens on regulated services, but I cannot accept the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and others. Doing so would greatly reduce the strong protections that the Bill offers to internet users, particularly to children. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, that that has long been the shared focus across your Lordships’ House as we seek to strike the right balance through the Bill. I hope to reassure noble Lords about the justification for the existing balance and scope, and the safeguards built in to prevent undue burdens to business.

I will start with the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley—Amendments 4, 6 to 8, 12, 288 and 305—which would significantly narrow the definition of services in scope of regulation. The current scope of the Bill reflects evidence of where harm is manifested online. There is clear evidence that smaller services can pose a significant risk of harm from illegal content, as well as to children, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, rightly echoed. Moreover, harmful content and activity often range across a number of services. While illegal content or activity may originate on larger platforms, offenders often seek to move to smaller platforms with less effective systems for tackling criminal activity in order to circumvent those protections. Exempting smaller services from regulation would likely accelerate that process, resulting in illegal content being displaced on to smaller services, putting users at risk.

These amendments would create significant new loopholes in regulation. Rather than relying on platforms and search services to identify and manage risk proactively, they would require Ofcom to monitor smaller harmful services, which would further annoy my noble friend Lord Moylan. Let me reassure the noble Baroness, however, that the Bill has been designed to avoid disproportionate or unnecessary burdens on smaller services. All duties on services are proportionate to the risk of harm and the capacity of companies. This means that small, low-risk services will have minimal duties imposed on them. Ofcom’s guidance and codes of practice will set out how they can comply with their duties, in a way that I hope is even clearer than the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, but certainly allowing for companies to have a conversation and ask for areas of clarification, if that is still needed. They will ensure that low-risk services do not have to undertake unnecessary measures if they do not pose a risk of harm to their users.

In addition, the Bill includes explicit exemptions for many small and medium-sized enterprises, through the low-risk functionality exemptions in Schedule 1. This includes an exemption for any service that offers users the ability only to post comments or reviews on digital content published by it, which will exempt many online retailers, news sites and web logs. The Bill also provides the Secretary of State with a power to exempt further types of user-to-user or search services from the Bill if the risk of harm presented by a particular service is low, ensuring that other low-risk services are not subject to unnecessary regulation. There was quite a lot of talk about Wikipedia—

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 6:30, 25 April 2023

My Lords, while my noble friend is talking about the possibility of excessive and disproportionate burden on businesses, can I just ask him about the possibility of excessive and disproportionate burden on the regulator? He seems to be saying that Ofcom is going to have to maintain, and keep up to date regularly, 25,000 risk assessments—this is on the Government’s own assessment, produced 15 months ago, of the state of the market then—even if those assessments carried out by Ofcom result in very little consequence for the regulated entity.

We know from regulation in this country that regulators already cannot cope with the burdens placed on them. They become inefficient, sclerotic and unresponsive; they have difficulty in recruiting staff of the same level and skills as the entities that they regulate. We have a Financial Services and Markets Bill going through at the moment, and the FCA is a very good example of that. Do we really think that this is a sensible burden to place on a regulator that is actually able to discharge it?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

The Bill creates a substantial new role for Ofcom, but it has already substantially recruited and prepared for the effective carrying out of that new duty. I do not know whether my noble friend was in some of the briefings with officials from Ofcom, but it is very happy to set out directly the ways in which it is already discharging, or preparing to discharge, those duties. The Government have provided it with further resource to enable it to do so. It may be helpful for my noble friend to have some of those discussions directly with the regulator, but we are confident that it is ready to discharge its duties, as set out in the Bill.

I was about to say that we have already had a bit of discussion on Wikipedia. I am conscious that we are going to touch on it again in the debate on the next group of amendments so, at the risk of being marked down for repetition, which is a black mark on that platform, I shall not pre-empt what I will say shortly. But I emphasise that the Bill does not impose prescriptive, one-size-fits-all duties on services. The codes of practice from Ofcom will set out a range of measures that are appropriate for different types of services in scope. Companies can follow their own routes to compliance, so long as they are confident that they are effectively managing risks associated with legal content and, where relevant, harm to children. That will ensure that services that already use community moderation effectively can continue to do so—such as Wikipedia, which successfully uses that to moderate content. As I say, we will touch on that more in the debate on the next group.

Amendment 9, in the name of my noble friend Lord Moylan, is designed to exempt small and medium sized-enterprises working to benefit the public from the scope of the Bill. Again, I am sympathetic to the objective of ensuring that the Bill does not impose undue burdens on small businesses, and particularly that it should not inhibit services from providing valuable content of public benefit, but I do not think it would be feasible to exempt service providers deemed to be

“working to benefit the public”.

I appreciate that this is a probing amendment, but the wording that my noble friend has alighted on highlights the difficulties of finding something suitably precise and not contestable. It would be challenging to identify which services should qualify for such an exemption.

Taking small services out of scope would significantly undermine the framework established by the Bill, as we know that many smaller services host illegal content and pose a threat to children. Again, let me reassure noble Lords that the Bill has been designed to avoid disproportionate or unnecessary regulatory burdens on small and low-risk services. It will not impose a disproportionate burden on services or impede users’ access to value content on smaller services.

Amendment 9A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, is designed to exempt “sector specific search services” from the scope of the Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, explained. Again, I am sympathetic to the intention here of ensuring that the Bill does not impose a disproportionate burden on services, but this is another amendment that is not needed as it would exempt search services that may pose a significant risk of harm to children, or because of illegal content on them. The amendment aims to exempt specialised search services—that is, those that allow users to

“search for … products or services … in a particular sector”.

It would exempt specialised search services that could cause harm to children or host illegal content—for example, pornographic search services or commercial search services that could facilitate online fraud. I know the noble Lord would not want to see that.

The regulatory duties apply only where there is a significant risk of harm and the scope has been designed to exclude low-risk search services. The duties therefore do not apply to search engines that search a single database or website, for example those of many retailers or other commercial websites. Even where a search service is in scope, the duties on services are proportionate to the risk of harm that they pose to users, as well as to a company’s size and capacity. Low-risk services, for example, will have minimal duties. Ofcom will ensure that these services can quickly and easily comply by publishing risk profiles for low-risk services, enabling them easily to understand their risk levels and, if necessary, take steps to mitigate them.

The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, asked some questions about the 200 most popular pornographic websites. If I may, I will respond to the questions he posed, along with others that I am sure will come in the debate on the fifth group, when we debate the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, because that will take us on to the same territory.

I hope that provides some assurance to my noble friend Lord Moylan, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and others, and that they will be willing not to press their amendments in this group.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I thank people for such a wide-ranging and interesting set of contributions. I take comfort from the fact that so many people understood what the amendments were trying to do, even if they did not fully succeed in that. I thought it was quite interesting that in the first debate the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, said that he might be a bit isolated on the apps, but I actually agreed with him—which might not do his reputation any good. However, when he said that, I thought, “Welcome to my world”, so I am quite pleased that this has not all been shot down in flames before we started. My amendment really was a serious attempt to tackle something that is a real problem.

The Minister says that the Bill is designed to avoid disproportionate burdens on services. All I can say is, “Sack the designer”. It is absolutely going to have a disproportionate burden on a wide range of small services, which will not be able to cope, and that is why so many of them are worried about it. Some 80% of the companies that will be caught up in this red tape are small and micro-businesses. I will come to the small business point in a moment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, warned us that small tech businesses become big tech businesses. As far as I am concerned, that is a success story—it is what I want; is it not what we all want? Personally, I think economic development and growth is a positive thing—I do not want them to fail. However, I do not think it will ever happen; I do not think that small tech businesses will ever grow into big tech businesses if they face a disproportionate burden in the regulatory sense, as I have tried to describe. That is what I am worried about, and it is not a positive thing to be celebrated.

I stress that it is not small tech and big tech. There are also community sites, based on collective moderation. Wikipedia has had a lot of discussion here. For a Bill that stresses that it wants to empower users, we should think about what it means when these user-moderated community sites are telling us that they will not be able to carry on and get through. That is what they are saying. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said that he relies on Wikipedia—many of us do, although please do not believe what it says about me. There are all of these things, but then there was a feeling that, well, Reddit is a bit dodgy. The Bill is not meant to be deciding which ones to trust in quite that way, or people’s tastes.

I was struck that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said that small is not safe, and used the incel example. I am not emphasising that small is safe; I am saying that the small entities will not survive this process. That is my fear. I do not mean that the big ones are nasty and dangerous and the small ones are cosy, lovely and Wikipedia-like. I am suggesting that smaller entities will not be able to survive the regulatory onslaught. That is the main reason I raised this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said that these entities can cause great harm. I am worried about a culture of fear, in which we demonise tens of thousands of innocent tech businesses and communities and end up destroying them when we do not intend to. I tried to put in the amendment an ability for Ofcom, if there are problematic sites that are risky, to deal with them. As the Minister kept saying, low-risk search engines have been exempted. I am suggesting that low-risk small and micro-businesses are exempted, which is the majority of them. That is what I am suggesting, rather than that we assume they are all guilty and then they have to get exempted.

Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, asked how many pornography sites are in scope and which pornographic websites have a million or fewer users. I am glad I do not know the answer to that, otherwise people might wonder why I did. The point is that there are always going to be sites that are threatening or a risk to children, as we are discussing. But we must always bear in mind—this was the important point that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, made—that in our absolute determination to protect children via this Bill we do not unintendedly damage society as a whole. Adult access to free speech, for example, is one of my concerns, as are businesses and so on. We should not have that as an outcome.

I am sure that my amendments could be majorly improved. The approach of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, might be better. I am happy to look at the metric and whether or not it is 1 million monthly users. However, I am insistent that the bipartisan approach to risk from the Minister and the Opposition will not help us achieve what we want from this Bill and will cause unnecessary problems. We have to avoid a recipe for risk aversion that will hold back the progressive and wonderful aspects of the online world, or at least the educational and in some instances business aspects.

I am obviously not going to push the amendments now, but I will come back to this. If it is not me, I hope somebody does, because the fact that some people said that half the points the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, made were correct was a step forward. I have no interest in noble Lords supporting my amendments, as long as we take seriously the content of my concerns and those expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey and Lord Moylan, particularly. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendments 5 to 8 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Schedule 1: Exempt user-to-user and search services

Amendments 9 and 9A not moved.

Schedule 1 agreed.

Schedule 2 agreed.

Clause 4: Disapplication of Act to certain parts of services