Amendment 4

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative 6:00, 25 April 2023

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.