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 Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 6:15, 25 April 2023

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—