Amendment 4

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 6:15, 25 April 2023

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.