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 Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 6:30, 25 April 2023

My Lords, I thank people for such a wide-ranging and interesting set of contributions. I take comfort from the fact that so many people understood what the amendments were trying to do, even if they did not fully succeed in that. I thought it was quite interesting that in the first debate the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, said that he might be a bit isolated on the apps, but I actually agreed with him—which might not do his reputation any good. However, when he said that, I thought, “Welcome to my world”, so I am quite pleased that this has not all been shot down in flames before we started. My amendment really was a serious attempt to tackle something that is a real problem.

The Minister says that the Bill is designed to avoid disproportionate burdens on services. All I can say is, “Sack the designer”. It is absolutely going to have a disproportionate burden on a wide range of small services, which will not be able to cope, and that is why so many of them are worried about it. Some 80% of the companies that will be caught up in this red tape are small and micro-businesses. I will come to the small business point in a moment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, warned us that small tech businesses become big tech businesses. As far as I am concerned, that is a success story—it is what I want; is it not what we all want? Personally, I think economic development and growth is a positive thing—I do not want them to fail. However, I do not think it will ever happen; I do not think that small tech businesses will ever grow into big tech businesses if they face a disproportionate burden in the regulatory sense, as I have tried to describe. That is what I am worried about, and it is not a positive thing to be celebrated.

I stress that it is not small tech and big tech. There are also community sites, based on collective moderation. Wikipedia has had a lot of discussion here. For a Bill that stresses that it wants to empower users, we should think about what it means when these user-moderated community sites are telling us that they will not be able to carry on and get through. That is what they are saying. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said that he relies on Wikipedia—many of us do, although please do not believe what it says about me. There are all of these things, but then there was a feeling that, well, Reddit is a bit dodgy. The Bill is not meant to be deciding which ones to trust in quite that way, or people’s tastes.

I was struck that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said that small is not safe, and used the incel example. I am not emphasising that small is safe; I am saying that the small entities will not survive this process. That is my fear. I do not mean that the big ones are nasty and dangerous and the small ones are cosy, lovely and Wikipedia-like. I am suggesting that smaller entities will not be able to survive the regulatory onslaught. That is the main reason I raised this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said that these entities can cause great harm. I am worried about a culture of fear, in which we demonise tens of thousands of innocent tech businesses and communities and end up destroying them when we do not intend to. I tried to put in the amendment an ability for Ofcom, if there are problematic sites that are risky, to deal with them. As the Minister kept saying, low-risk search engines have been exempted. I am suggesting that low-risk small and micro-businesses are exempted, which is the majority of them. That is what I am suggesting, rather than that we assume they are all guilty and then they have to get exempted.

Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, asked how many pornography sites are in scope and which pornographic websites have a million or fewer users. I am glad I do not know the answer to that, otherwise people might wonder why I did. The point is that there are always going to be sites that are threatening or a risk to children, as we are discussing. But we must always bear in mind—this was the important point that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, made—that in our absolute determination to protect children via this Bill we do not unintendedly damage society as a whole. Adult access to free speech, for example, is one of my concerns, as are businesses and so on. We should not have that as an outcome.

I am sure that my amendments could be majorly improved. The approach of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, might be better. I am happy to look at the metric and whether or not it is 1 million monthly users. However, I am insistent that the bipartisan approach to risk from the Minister and the Opposition will not help us achieve what we want from this Bill and will cause unnecessary problems. We have to avoid a recipe for risk aversion that will hold back the progressive and wonderful aspects of the online world, or at least the educational and in some instances business aspects.

I am obviously not going to push the amendments now, but I will come back to this. If it is not me, I hope somebody does, because the fact that some people said that half the points the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, made were correct was a step forward. I have no interest in noble Lords supporting my amendments, as long as we take seriously the content of my concerns and those expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey and Lord Moylan, particularly. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendments 5 to 8 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Schedule 1: Exempt user-to-user and search services

Amendments 9 and 9A not moved.

Schedule 1 agreed.

Schedule 2 agreed.

Clause 4: Disapplication of Act to certain parts of services