Amendment 4

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 25 April 2023.

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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.