Amendment 4

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 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) 6:30, 25 April 2023

The Bill creates a substantial new role for Ofcom, but it has already substantially recruited and prepared for the effective carrying out of that new duty. I do not know whether my noble friend was in some of the briefings with officials from Ofcom, but it is very happy to set out directly the ways in which it is already discharging, or preparing to discharge, those duties. The Government have provided it with further resource to enable it to do so. It may be helpful for my noble friend to have some of those discussions directly with the regulator, but we are confident that it is ready to discharge its duties, as set out in the Bill.

I was about to say that we have already had a bit of discussion on Wikipedia. I am conscious that we are going to touch on it again in the debate on the next group of amendments so, at the risk of being marked down for repetition, which is a black mark on that platform, I shall not pre-empt what I will say shortly. But I emphasise that the Bill does not impose prescriptive, one-size-fits-all duties on services. The codes of practice from Ofcom will set out a range of measures that are appropriate for different types of services in scope. Companies can follow their own routes to compliance, so long as they are confident that they are effectively managing risks associated with legal content and, where relevant, harm to children. That will ensure that services that already use community moderation effectively can continue to do so—such as Wikipedia, which successfully uses that to moderate content. As I say, we will touch on that more in the debate on the next group.

Amendment 9, in the name of my noble friend Lord Moylan, is designed to exempt small and medium sized-enterprises working to benefit the public from the scope of the Bill. Again, I am sympathetic to the objective of ensuring that the Bill does not impose undue burdens on small businesses, and particularly that it should not inhibit services from providing valuable content of public benefit, but I do not think it would be feasible to exempt service providers deemed to be

“working to benefit the public”.

I appreciate that this is a probing amendment, but the wording that my noble friend has alighted on highlights the difficulties of finding something suitably precise and not contestable. It would be challenging to identify which services should qualify for such an exemption.

Taking small services out of scope would significantly undermine the framework established by the Bill, as we know that many smaller services host illegal content and pose a threat to children. Again, let me reassure noble Lords that the Bill has been designed to avoid disproportionate or unnecessary regulatory burdens on small and low-risk services. It will not impose a disproportionate burden on services or impede users’ access to value content on smaller services.

Amendment 9A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, is designed to exempt “sector specific search services” from the scope of the Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, explained. Again, I am sympathetic to the intention here of ensuring that the Bill does not impose a disproportionate burden on services, but this is another amendment that is not needed as it would exempt search services that may pose a significant risk of harm to children, or because of illegal content on them. The amendment aims to exempt specialised search services—that is, those that allow users to

“search for … products or services … in a particular sector”.

It would exempt specialised search services that could cause harm to children or host illegal content—for example, pornographic search services or commercial search services that could facilitate online fraud. I know the noble Lord would not want to see that.

The regulatory duties apply only where there is a significant risk of harm and the scope has been designed to exclude low-risk search services. The duties therefore do not apply to search engines that search a single database or website, for example those of many retailers or other commercial websites. Even where a search service is in scope, the duties on services are proportionate to the risk of harm that they pose to users, as well as to a company’s size and capacity. Low-risk services, for example, will have minimal duties. Ofcom will ensure that these services can quickly and easily comply by publishing risk profiles for low-risk services, enabling them easily to understand their risk levels and, if necessary, take steps to mitigate them.

The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, asked some questions about the 200 most popular pornographic websites. If I may, I will respond to the questions he posed, along with others that I am sure will come in the debate on the fifth group, when we debate the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, because that will take us on to the same territory.

I hope that provides some assurance to my noble friend Lord Moylan, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and others, and that they will be willing not to press their amendments in this group.