Amendment 12A

Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay:

Moved by Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay

12A: Clause 6, page 5, line 11, at end insert “(2) to (8)”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is consequential on the amendments in the Minister’s name to clause 9 below (because the new duty to summarise illegal content risk assessments in the terms of service is only imposed on providers of Category 1 services).

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, this group of government amendments relates to risk assessments; it may be helpful if I speak to them now as the final group before the dinner break.

Risk management is at the heart of the Bill’s regulatory framework. Ofcom and services’ risk assessments will form the foundation for protecting users from illegal content and content which is harmful to children. They will ensure that providers thoroughly identify the risks on their own websites, enabling them to manage and mitigate the potential harms arising from them. Ofcom will set out the risks across the sector and issue guidance to companies on how to conduct their assessments effectively. All providers will be required to carry out risk assessments, keep them up-to-date and update them before making a significant change to the design or operation of their service which could put their users at risk. Providers will then need to put in place measures to manage and mitigate the risks they identify in their risk assessments, including any emerging risks.

Given how crucial the risk assessments are to this framework, it is essential that we enable them to be properly scrutinised by the public. The government amendments in this group will place new duties on providers of the largest services—that is, category 1 and 2A services—to publish summaries of their illegal and child safety risk assessments. Through these amendments, providers of these services will also have a new duty to send full records of their risk assessments to Ofcom. This will increase transparency about the risk of harm on the largest platforms, clearly showing how risk is affected by factors such as the design, user base or functionality of their services. These amendments will further ensure that the risk assessments can be properly assessed by internet users, including by children and their parents and guardians, by ensuring that summaries of the assessments are publicly available. This will empower users to make informed decisions when choosing whether and how to use these services.

It is also important that Ofcom is fully appraised of the risks identified by service providers. That is why these amendments introduce duties for both category 1 and 2A services to send their records of these risk assessments, in full, to Ofcom. This will make it easier for Ofcom to supervise compliance with the risk assessment duties, as well as other duties linked to the findings of the risk assessments, rather than having to request the assessments from companies under its information-gathering powers.

These amendments also clarify that companies must keep a record of all aspects of their risk assessments, which strengthens the existing record-keeping duties on services. I hope that noble Lords will welcome these amendments. I beg to move.

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

My Lords, it is risky to stand between people and their dinner, but I rise very briefly to welcome these amendments. We should celebrate the good stuff that happens in Committee as well as the challenging stuff. The risk assessments are, I think, the single most positive part of this legislation. Online platforms already do a lot of work trying to understand what risks are taking place on their platforms, which never sees the light of day except when it is leaked by a whistleblower and we then have a very imperfect debate around it.

The fact that platforms will have to do a formal risk assessment and share it with a third-party regulator is huge progress; it will create a very positive dynamic. The fact that the public will be able to see those risk assessments and make their own judgments about which services to use—according to how well they have done them—is, again, a massive public benefit. We should welcome the fact that risk assessments are there and the improvements that this group of amendments makes to them. I hope that was short enough.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

I also welcome these amendments, but I have two very brief questions for the Minister. First, in Amendment 27A, it seems that the child risk assessment is limited only to category 1 services and will be published only in the terms of service. As he probably knows, 98% of people do not read terms of service, so I wondered where else we might find this, or whether there is a better way of dealing with it.

My second question is to do with Amendments 64A and 88A. It seems to me—forgive me if I am wrong—that the Bill previously stipulated that all regulated search and user services had to make and keep a written record of any measure taken in compliance with a relevant duty, but now it seems to have rowed back to only category 1 and 2A services. I may be wrong on that, but I would like to check it for the record.

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

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, put her finger exactly on the two questions that I wanted to ask: namely, why only category 1 and category 2A, and is there some rowing back involved here? Of course, none of this prejudices the fact that, when we come later in Committee to talk about widening the ambit of risk assessments to material other than that which is specified in the Bill, this kind of transparency would be extremely useful. But the rationale for why it is only category 1 and category 2A in particular would be very useful to hear.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 7:30, 25 April 2023

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this group, and we certainly welcome this tranche of government amendments. We know that there are more to come both in Committee and as we proceed to Report, and we look forward to seeing them.

The amendments in this group, as other noble Lords have said, amount to a very sensible series of changes to services’ risk-assessment duties. This perhaps begs the question of why they were not included in earlier drafts of the Bill, but we are glad to see them now.

There is, of course, the issue of precisely where some of the information will appear, as well as the wider status of terms of service. I am sure those issues will be discussed in later debates. It is certainly welcome that the department is introducing stronger requirements around the information that must be made available to users; it will all help to make this a stronger and more practical Bill.

We all know that users need to be able to make informed decisions, and it will not be possible if they are required to view multiple statements and various documents. It seems that the requirements for information to be provided to Ofcom go to the very heart of the Bill, and I suggest that the proposed system will work best if there is trust and transparency between the regulator and those who are regulated. I am sure that there will be further debate on the scope of risk assessments, particularly on issues that were dropped from previous iterations of the Bill, and certainly this is a reasonable starting point today.

I will try to be as swift as possible as I raise a few key issues. One is about avoiding warnings that are at such a high level of generality that they get put on to everything. Perhaps the Minister could indicate how Ofcom will ensure that the summaries are useful and accessible to the reader. The test, of course, should be that a summary is suitable and sufficient for a prospective user to form an assessment of the likely risk they would encounter when using the service, taking into account any special vulnerabilities that they might have. That needs to be the test; perhaps the Minister could confirm that.

Is the terms of service section the correct place to put a summary of the illegal content risk assessment? Research suggests, unsurprisingly, that only 3% of people read terms before signing up—although I recall that, in an earlier debate, the Minister confessed that he had read all the terms and conditions of his mobile phone contract, so he may be one of the 3%. It is without doubt that any individual should be supported in their ability to make choices, and the duty should perhaps instead be to display a summary of the risks with due prominence, to ensure that anyone who is considering signing up to a service is really able to read it.

I also ask the Minister to confirm that, despite the changes to Clause 19 in Amendment 16B, the duty to keep records of risk assessments will continue to apply to all companies, but with an enhanced responsibility for category 1 companies.

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

I am grateful to noble Lords for their questions on this, and particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for their chorus of welcome. Where we are able to make changes, we will of course bring them forward, and I am glad to be able to bring forward this tranche now.

As the noble Lord, Lord Allan, said, ensuring the transparency of services’ risk assessments will further ensure that the framework of the Bill delivers its core objectives relating to effective risk management and increased accountability regarding regulated services. As we have discussed, it is imperative that these providers take a thorough approach to identifying risks, including emerging risks. The Government believe that it is of the utmost importance that the public are able effectively to scrutinise the risk assessments of the largest in-scope services, so that users can be empowered to make informed decisions about whether and how to use their services.

On the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about why it is just category 1 and category 2A services, we estimate that there will be around 25,000 UK service providers in scope of the Bill’s illegal and child safety duties. Requiring all these companies to publish full risk assessments and proactively to send them to Ofcom could undermine the Bill’s risk-based and proportionate approach, as we have discussed in previous groups on the burdens to business. A large number of these companies are likely to be low risk and it is unlikely that many people will seek out their risk assessments, so requiring all companies to publish them would be an excessive regulatory burden.

There would also be an expectation that Ofcom would proactively monitor a whole range of services, even ones that posed a minimal risk to users. That in turn could distract Ofcom from taking a risk-based approach in its regulation by overwhelming it with paperwork from thousands of low-risk services. If Ofcom wants to see records of the risk assessments of providers that are not category 1 or category 2A services, it has extensive information-gathering powers that it can use to require a provider to send it such records.

The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, was right to say that I read the terms of my broadband supply—I plead guilty to the nerdiness of doing that—but I have not read all the terms and conditions of every application and social medium I have downloaded, and I agree that many people do skim through them. They say the most commonly told lie on the planet at the moment is “I agree to the terms and conditions”, and the noble Baroness is right to point to the need for these to be intelligible, easily accessible and transparent—which of course we want to see.

In answer to her other question, the record-keeping duty will apply to all companies, but the requirement to publish is only for category 1 and category 2A companies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, asked me about Amendment 27A. If she will permit me, I will write to her with the best and fullest answer to that question.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their questions on this group of amendments.

Amendment 12A agreed.