Amendment 10

Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Lord Moylan:

Moved by Lord Moylan

10: Clause 4, page 4, line 8, at end insert—“(2A) This Act does not apply in relation to moderation actions taken, or not taken, by users of a Part 3 service.”Member’s explanatory statementThe drafting of some Bill provisions, such as Clauses 17(4)(c) or 65(1), leaves room for debate as to whether community moderation gives rise to liability and obligations for the provider. This amendment, along with the other amendment to Clause 4 in the name of Lord Moylan, clarifies that moderation carried out by the public, for example on Wikipedia, is not fettered by this Bill.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I have to start with a slightly unprofessional confession. I accepted the Bill team’s suggestion on how my amendments might be grouped after I had grouped them rather differently. The result is that I am not entirely clear why some of these groupings are quite as they are. As my noble friend the Minister said, my original idea of having Amendments 9, 10 and 11 together would perhaps have been better, as it would have allowed him to give a single response on Wikipedia. Amendments 10 and 11 in this group relate to Wikipedia and services like it.

I am, I hope, going to cause the Committee some relief as I do not intend to repeat remarks made in the previous group. The extent to which my noble friend wishes to amplify his comments in response to the previous group is entirely a matter for him, since he said he was reserving matter that he would like to bring forward but did not when commenting on the previous group. If I do not speak further on Amendments 10 and 11, it is not because I am not interested in what my noble friend the Minister might have to say on the topic of Wikipedia.

To keep this fairly brief, I turn to Amendment 26 on age verification. I think we have all agreed in the Chamber that we are united in wanting to see children kept safe. On page 10 of the Bill, in Clause 11(3), it states that there will be a duty to

“prevent children of any age from encountering” this content—“prevent” them “encountering” is extremely strong. We do not prevent children encountering the possibility of buying cigarettes or encountering the possibility of being injured crossing the road, but we are to prevent children from these encounters. It is strongly urged in the clause—it is given as an example—that age verification will be required for that purpose.

Of course, age verification works only if it applies to everybody: one does not ask just the children to prove their age; one has to ask everybody online. Unlike when I go to the bar in a pub, my grey hair cannot be seen online. So this provision will almost certainly have to extend to the entire population. In Clause 11(3)(b), we have an obligation to protect. Clearly, the Government intend a difference between “prevent” and “protect”, or they would not have used two different verbs, so can my noble friend the Minister explain what is meant by the distinction between “prevent” and “protect”?

My amendment would remove Clause 11(3) completely. But it is, in essence, a probing amendment and what I want to hear from the Government, apart from how they interpret the difference between “prevent” and “protect”, is how they expect this duty to be carried out without having astonishingly annoying and deterring features built into every user-to-user platform and website, so that every time one goes on Wikipedia—in addition to dealing with the GDPR, accepting cookies and all the other nonsense we have to go through quite pointlessly—we then have to provide age verification of some sort.

What mechanism that might be, I do not know. I am sure that there are many mechanisms available for age verification. I do not wish to get into a technical discussion about what particular techniques might be used—I accept that there will be a range and that they will respond and adapt in the light of demand and technological advance—but I would like to know what my noble friend the Minister expects and how wide he thinks the obligation will be. Will it be on the entire population, as I suspect? Focusing on that amendment—and leaving the others to my noble friend the Minister to respond to as he sees fit—and raising those questions, I think that the Committee would like to know how the Government imagine that this provision will work. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I will speak to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on moderation, which I think are more important than he has given himself credit for—they go more broadly than just Wikipedia.

There is a lot of emphasis on platform moderation, but the reality is that most moderation of online content is done by users, either individually or in groups, acting as groups in the space where they operate. The typical example, which many Members of this House have experienced, is when you post something and somebody asks, “Did you mean to post that?”, and you say, “Oh gosh, no”, and then delete it. A Member in the other place has recently experienced a rather high-profile example of that through the medium of the newspaper. On a much smaller scale, it is absolutely typical that people take down content every day, either because they regret it or, quite often, because their friends, families or communities tell them that it was unwise. That is the most effective form of moderation, because it is the way that people learn to change their behaviour online, as opposed to the experience of a platform removing content, which is often experienced as the big bad hand of the platform. The person does not learn to change their behaviour, so, in some cases, it can reinforce bad behaviour.

Community moderation, not just on Wikipedia but across the internet, is an enormous public good, and the last thing that we want to do in this legislation is to discourage people from doing it. In online spaces, that is often a volunteer activity: people give up their time to try to keep a space safe and within the guidelines they have set for that space. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, has touched on a really important area: in the Bill, we must be absolutely clear to those volunteers that we will not create all kinds of new legal operations and liabilities on them. These are responsible people, so, if they are advised that they will incur all kinds of legal risk when trying to comply with the Online Safety Bill, they will stop doing the moderation—and then we will all suffer.

On age-gating, we will move to a series of amendments where we will discuss age assurance, but I will say at the outset, as a teaser to those longer debates, that I have sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. He mentioned pubs—we often talk about real-world analogies. In most of the public spaces we enter in the real world, nobody does any ID checking or age checking; we take it on trust, unless and until you carry out an action, such as buying alcohol, which requires an age check.

It is legitimate to raise this question, because where we fall in this debate will depend on how we see public spaces. I see a general-purpose social network as equivalent to walking into a pub or a town square, so I do not expect to have my age and ID checked at the point at which I enter that public space. I might accept that my ID is checked at a certain point where I carry out various actions. Others will disagree and will say that the space should be checked as soon as you go into it—that is the boundary of the debate we will have across a few groups. As a liberal, I am certainly on the side that says that it is incumbent on the person wanting to impose the extra checks to justify them. We should not just assume that extra checks are cost-free and beneficial; they have a cost for us all, and it should be imposed only where there is a reasonable justification.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

Far be it for me to suggest that all the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, are in the wrong place, but I think that Amendment 26 might have been better debated with the other amendments on age assurance.

On community moderation, I underscore the point that Ofcom must have a risk profile as part of its operations. When we get to that subject, let us understand what Ofcom intends to do with it—maybe we should instruct Ofcom a little about what we would like it to do with it for community moderation. I have a lot of sympathy—but do not think it is a get-out clause—with seeing some spaces as less risky, or, at least, for determining what risky looks like in online spaces, which is a different question. This issue belongs in the risk profile: it is not about taking things out; we have to build it into the Bill we have.

On age assurance and AV, I do not think that today is the day to discuss it in full. I disagree with the point that, because we are checking kids, we have to check ourselves—that is not where the technology is. Without descending into technical arguments, as the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, asked us not to, we will bring some of those issues forward.

The noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Stevenson, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford have a package of amendments which are very widely supported across the Committee. They have put forward a schedule of age assurance that says what the rules of the road are. We must stop pretending that age assurance is something that is being invented now in this Bill. If you log into a website with your Facebook login, it shares your age—and that is used by 42% of people online. However, if you use an Apple login, it does not share your age, so I recommend using Apple—but, interestingly, it is harder to find that option on websites, because websites want to know your age.

So, first, we must not treat age assurance as if it has just been invented. Secondly, we need to start to have rules of the road, and ask what is acceptable, what is proportionate, and when we will have zero tolerance. Watching faces around the Committee, I say that I will accept zero tolerance for pornography and some other major subjects, but, for the most part, age assurance is something that we need to have regulated. Currently, it is being done to us rather than in any way that is transparent or agreed, and that is very problematic.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I hesitated to speak to the previous group of amendments, but I want to speak in support of the issue of risk that my noble friend Lady Kidron raised again in this group of amendments. I do not believe that noble Lords in the Committee want to cut down the amount of information and the ability to obtain information online. Rather, we came to the Bill wanting to avoid some of the really terrible harms promoted by some websites which hook into people’s vulnerability to becoming addicted to extremely harmful behaviours, which are harmful not only to themselves but to other people and, in particular, to children, who have no voice at all. I also have a concern about vulnerable people over the age of 18, and that may be something we will come to later in our discussions on the Bill.

It seems really important that we stick with the principle that if it is profoundly illegal in the offline world then we cannot allow it to be perpetrated in the online world. That compass needle has been behind some of the thinking of a lot of us in trying to grapple with this issue, which is very complex for those of us who are outside the world of tech and internet and coming new to it, but who have seen the results of some of those harms perpetrated. That is where the problem arises.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative 7:00, 25 April 2023

My Lords, I violently agree with my noble friend Lord Moylan that the grouping of this amendment is unfortunate. For that reason I am not going to plunge into the issue in huge detail. but there are a couple of things I would like to reassure my noble friend on, and I have a question for the Minister.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said there is a package of amendments around age verification and that we will have a lot of time to dive into this, and I think that is probably the right format for doing it. However, I reassure my noble friend Lord Moylan that he is absolutely right. The idea is not in any way to shut off the town square from everyone simply because there might be something scary there.

Clause 11(3) refers to priority content, which the noble Lord will know is to do with child abuse and fraudulent and severely violent content. This is not just any old stuff; this is hardcore porn and the rest. As in the real world, that content should be behind an age-verification barrier. At the moment we have a situation on the internet where, because it has not been well-managed for a generation, this content has found itself everywhere: on Twitter and Reddit, and all sorts of places where really it should not be because there are children there. We envisage a degree of tidying up of social media and the internet to make sure that the dangerous content is put behind age verification. What we are not seeking to do, and what would not be a benign or positive action, is to put the entire internet behind some kind of age-verification boundary. From that point of view, I completely agree with my noble friend.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, as might be expected, I will speak against Amendment 26 and will explain why.

The children’s charity Barnardo’s—here I declare an interest as vice-president—has said, as has been said several times before, that children are coming across pornographic content from as young as seven. Often they stumble across the content accidentally, unwittingly searching for terms such as “sex” or “porn”, without knowing what they mean. The impact that this is having on children is huge. It is harming their mental health and distorting their perception of healthy sexual relationships and consent. That will go with them into adulthood.

Age verification for pornography and age assurance to protect children from other harms are crucial to protect children from this content. In the offline world, children are rightly not allowed to buy pornographic DVDs in sex shops but online they can access this content at the click of a button. This is why I will be supporting the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and am fully supportive of their age assurance and age verification schedule.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, to go back not just to the age question, the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, reminded us that community-led moderation is not just Wikipedia. What I tried to hint at earlier is that that is one of the most interesting, democratic aspects of the online world, which we should protect.

We often boast that we are a self-regulating House and that that makes us somehow somewhat superior to up the road—we are all so mature because we self-regulate; people do behave badly but we decide. It is a lesson in democracy that you have a self-regulating House, and there are parts of the online world that self-regulate. Unless we think that the citizens of the UK are less civilised than Members of the House of Lords, which I would refute, we should say that it is positive that there are self-moderating, self-regulating online sites. If you can say something and people can object and have a discussion about it, and things can be taken down, to me that is the way we should deal with speech that is inappropriate or wrong. The bulk of these amendments—I cannot remember how many there are now—are right.

I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, said he could not understand why this grouping had happened, which is what I said earlier. I had gone through a number of groupings thinking: “What is that doing there? Am I missing something? Why is that in that place?” I think we will come back to the age verification debate and discussion.

One thing to note is that one of the reasons organisations such as Wikipedia would be concerned about age verification—and they are—is anonymity. It is something we have to consider. What is going to happen to anonymity? It is so important for journalists, civil liberty activists and whistleblowers. Many Wikipedia editors are anonymised, maybe because they are politically editing sites on controversial issues. Imagine being a Wikipedia editor from Russia at the moment—you would not want to have to say who you are. We will come back to it but it is important to understand that Amendment 26, and those who are saying that we should look at the question of age verification, are not doing so because they do not care about children and are not interested in protecting them. However, the dilemmas of any age-gating or age verification for adult civil liberties have to be considered. We have to worry that, because of an emphasis on checking age, some websites will decide to sanitise what they allow to be published to make it suitable for children, just in case they come across it. Again, that will have a detrimental impact on adult access to all knowledge.

These will be controversial issues, and we will come back to them, but it is good to have started the discussion.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, this has been a very strange debate. It has been the tail end of the last session and a trailer for a much bigger debate coming down the track. It was very odd.

We do not want to see everything behind an age-gating barrier, so I agree with my noble friend. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, reminded us, it is all about the risk profile, and that then leads to the kind of risk assessment that a platform is going to be required to carry out. There is a logic to the way that the Bill is going to operate.

When you look at Clause 11(3), you see that it is not disproportionate. It deals with “primary priority content”. This is not specified in the Bill but it is self-harm and pornography—major content that needs age-gating. Of course we need to have the principles for age assurance inserted into the Bill as well, and of course it will be subject to debate as we go forward.

There is technology to carry out age verification which is far more sophisticated than it ever was, so I very much look forward to that debate. We started that process in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. I was described as an internet villain for believing in age verification. I have not changed my view, but the debate will be very interesting. As regards the tail-end of the previous debate, of course we are sympathetic on these Benches to the Wikipedia case. As we said on the last group, I very much hope that we will find a way, whether it is in Schedule 1 or in another way, of making sure that Wikipedia is not affected overly by this—maybe the risk profile that is drawn up by Ofcom will make sure that Wikipedia is not unduly impacted.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

Like others, I had prepared quite extensive notes to respond to what I thought the noble Lord was going to say about his amendments in this group, and I have not been able to find anything left that I can use, so I am going to have to extemporise slightly. I think it is very helpful to have a little non-focused discussion about what we are about to talk about in terms of age, because there is a snare and a delusion in quite a lot of it. I was put in mind of that in the discussions on the Digital Economy Act, which of course precedes the Minister but is certainly still alive in our thinking: in fact, we were talking about it earlier today.

The problem I see is that we have to find a way of squaring two quite different approaches. One is to prevent those who should not be able to see material, because it is illegal for them to see it. The other is to find a way of ensuring that we do not end up with an age-gated internet, which I am grateful to find that we are all, I think, agreed about: that is very good to know.

Age is very tricky, as we have heard, and it is not the only consideration we have to bear in mind in wondering whether people should be able to gain access to areas of the internet which we know will be bad and difficult for them. That leads us, of course, to the question about legal but harmful, now resolved—or is it? We are going to have this debate about age assurance and what it is. What is age verification? How do they differ? How does it matter? Is 18 a fixed and final point at which we are going to say that childhood ends and adulthood begins, and therefore one is open for everything? It is exactly the point made earlier about how to care for those who should not be exposed to material which, although legal for them by a number called age, is not appropriate for them in any of the circumstances which, clinically, we might want to bring to bear.

I do not think we are going to resolve these issues today—I hope not. We are going to talk about them for ever, but at this stage I think we still need a bit of thinking outside a box which says that age is the answer to a lot of the problems we have. I do not think it is, but whether the Bill is going to carry that forward I have my doubts. How we get that to the next stage, I do not know, but I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on it.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I agree that this has been a rather unfortunate grouping and has led to a slightly strange debate. I apologise if it is the result of advice given to my noble friend. I know there has been some degrouping as well, which has led to slightly odd combinations today. However, as promised, I shall say a bit more about Wikipedia in relation to my noble friend’s Amendments 10 and 11.

The effect of these amendments would be that moderation actions carried out by users—in other words, community moderation of user-to-user and search services —would not be in scope of the Bill. The Government support the use of effective user or community moderation by services where this is appropriate for the service in question. As I said on the previous group, as demonstrated by services such as Wikipedia, this can be a valuable and effective means of moderating content and sharing information. That is why the Bill does not impose a one-size-fits-all requirement on services, but instead allows services to adopt their own approaches to compliance, so long as these are effective. The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, dwelt on this. I should be clear that duties will not be imposed on individual community moderators; the duties are on platforms to tackle illegal content and protect children. Platforms can achieve this through, among other things, centralised or community moderation. Ultimately, however, it is they who are responsible for ensuring compliance and it is platforms, not community moderators, who will face enforcement action if they fail to do so.

The amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Moylan appear to intend to take services which rely only on user moderation entirely out of the scope of the Bill, so that those services are not subject to the new regulatory framework in any way. That would create a gap in the protections created by the Bill and would create incentives for services to adopt nominal forms of user moderation to avoid being subject to the illegal content and child safety duties. This would significantly undermine the efficacy of the Bill and is therefore not something we could include in it. His Amendment 26 would remove the duties on providers in Clause 11(3) to prevent children encountering primary priority content, and to protect children in age groups at risk of harm from other content that is harmful to children. This is a key duty which must be retained.

Contrary to what some have said, there is currently no requirement in the Bill for users to verify their age before accessing search engines and user-to-user services. We expect that only services which pose the highest risk to children will use age-verification technologies, but this is indeed a debate to which we will return in earnest and in detail on later groups of amendments. Amendment 26 would remove a key child safety duty, significantly weakening the Bill’s protections for children. The Bill takes a proportionate approach to regulation, which recognises the diverse range of services that are in scope of it. My noble friend’s amendments run counter to that and would undermine the protections in the Bill. I hope he will feel able not to press them and allow us to return to the debates on age verification in full on another group.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 7:15, 25 April 2023

My Lords I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this slightly disjointed debate. I fully accept that there will be further opportunities to discuss age verification and related matters, so I shall say no more about that. I am grateful, in particular, to the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, for supplying the deficiency in my opening remarks about the importance of Amendments 10 and 11, and for explaining just how important that is too. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. It was good of him to say, in the open approach he took on the question of age, that there are issues still to be addressed. I do not think anybody feels that we have yet got this right and I think we are going to have to be very open in that discussion, when we get to it. That is also true about what the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, said: we have not yet got clarity as to where the age boundary is—I like his expression—for the public space. Where is the point at which, if checks are needed, those checks are to be applied? These are all matters to discuss and I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not address each individual contribution separately.

I would like to say something, I hope not unfairly or out of scope, about what was said by the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady Kidron, when they used, for the first time this afternoon, the phrase “zero tolerance”, and, at the same time, talked about a risk-based approach. I have, from my own local government experience, a lot of experience of risk-based approaches taken in relation to things—very different, of course, from the internet—such as food safety, where local authorities grade restaurants and food shops and take enforcement action and supervisory action according to their assessment of the risk that those premises present. That is partly to do with their assessment of the management and partly to do with their experience of things that have gone wrong in the past. If you have been found with mouse droppings and you have had to clean up the shop, then you will be examined a great deal more frequently until the enforcement officers are happy; whereas if you are always very well run, you will get an inspection visit maybe only once a year. That is what a risk-based assessment consists of. The important thing to say is that it does not produce zero tolerance or zero outcomes.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

I just want to make the point that I was talking about zero tolerance at the end of a ladder of tolerance, just to be clear. Letting a seven-year-old child into an 18-plus dating app or pornographic website is where the zero tolerance is—everything else is a ladder up to that.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

I beg the noble Baroness’s pardon; I took that for granted. There are certain things—access to pornography, material encouraging self-harm and things of that sort—where one has to have zero tolerance, but not everything. I am sorry I took that for granted, so I fully accept that I should have made that more explicit in my remarks. Not everything is to be zero-toleranced, so to speak, but certain things are. However, that does not mean that they will not happen. One has to accept that there will be leakage around all this, just as some of the best-run restaurants that have been managed superbly for years will turn out, on occasion, to be the source of food poisoning. One has to accept that this is never going to be as tight as some of the advocates wanted, but with that, I hope I will be given leave to withdraw—

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

May I intervene, because I have also been named in the noble Lord’s response? My concern is about the most extreme, most violent, most harmful and destructive things. There are some terrible things posted online. You would not run an open meeting on how to mutilate a child, or how to stab somebody most effectively to do the most harm. It is at this extreme end that I cannot see anyone in society in the offline world promoting classes for any of these terrible activities. Therefore, there is a sense that exposure to these things is of no benefit but promotes intense harm. People who are particularly vulnerable at a formative age in their development should not be exposed to them, because they would not be exposed to them elsewhere. I am speaking personally, not for anybody else, but I stress that this is the level at which the tolerance should be set to zero because we set it to zero in the rest of our lives.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

Everything the noble Baroness has said is absolutely right, and I completely agree with her. The point I simply want to make is that no form of risk-based assessment will achieve a zero-tolerance outcome, but—

Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Conservative

I am so sorry, but may I offer just one final thought from the health sector? While the noble Lord is right that where there are human beings there will be error, there is a concept in health of the “never event”—that when that error occurs, we should not tolerate it, and we should expect the people involved in creating that error to do a deep inspection and review to understand how it occurred, because it is considered intolerable. I think the same exists in the digital world in a risk assessment framework, and it would be a mistake to ignore it.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I am now going to attempt for the third time to beg the House’s leave to withdraw my amendment. I hope for the sake of us all, our dinner and the dinner break business, for which I see people assembling, that I will be granted that leave.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.

Amendment 11 not moved.

Clause 4 agreed.

Amendment 12 not moved.

Clause 5 agreed.

Clause 6: Providers of user-to-user services: duties of care