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 Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 5:45, 25 April 2023

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?