Amendment 17

Online Safety Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 27 April 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Moylan:

Moved by Lord Moylan

17: Clause 9, page 7, line 30, leave out “prevent individuals from” and insert “protect individuals from harms arising due to them”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, along with the other amendment to Clause 9 in the name of Lord Moylan, adds a requirement to protect individuals from harm, rather than monitoring, prior restraint and/or denial of access. Further obligations to mitigate and manage harm, including to remove unlawful content that is signalled to the service provider, are unchanged by this amendment.

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

My Lords, this is a very large and wide-ranging group of amendments. Within it, I have a number of amendments that, on their own, span three separate subjects. I propose to address these one after the other in my opening remarks, but other subjects will be brought in as the debate continues and other noble Lords speak to their own amendments.

If I split the amendments that I am speaking to into three groups, the first is Amendments 17 and 18. These relate to Clause 9, on page 7, where safety duties about illegal content are set out. The first of those amendments addresses the obligation to prevent individuals encountering priority illegal content by means of the service.

Earlier this week in Committee, I asked the Minister whether the Government understood “prevent” and “protect”, both of which they use in the legislation, to have different weight. I did not expect my noble friend to give an answer at that point, but I know that he will have reflected on it. We need clarity about this at some point, because courts will be looking at, listening to and reading what the Government say at the Dispatch Box about the weight to be given to these words. To my mind, to prevent something happening requires active measures in advance that ensure as far as reasonably and humanly possible that it does not actually happen, but one could be talking about something more reactive to protect someone from something happening.

This distinction is of great importance to internet companies—I am not talking about the big platforms—which will be placed, as I say repeatedly, under very heavy burdens by the Bill. It is possible that they simply will not be able to discharge them and will have to go out of business.

Let us take Wikipedia, which was mentioned earlier in Committee. It operates in 300 languages but employs 700 moderators globally to check what is happening. If it is required by Clause 9 to

“prevent individuals from encountering priority illegal content by means of the service”,

it will have to scrutinise what is put up on this community-driven website as or before it appears. Quite clearly, something such as Welsh Wikipedia—there is Wikipedia in Welsh—simply would not get off the ground if it had to meet that standard, because the number of people who would have to be employed to do that would be far more than the service could sustain. However, if we had something closer to the wording I suggest in my amendment, where services have to take steps to “protect” people—so they could react to something and take it down when they become aware of it—it all becomes a great deal more tolerable.

Similarly, Amendment 18 addresses subsection (3) of the same clause, where there is a

“duty to operate a service using proportionate systems and processes … to … minimise the length of time” for which content is present. How do you know whether you are minimising the length of time? How is that to be judged? What is the standard by which that is to be measured? Would it not be a great deal better and more achievable if the wording I propose, which is that you simply are under an obligation to take it down, were inserted? That is my first group of amendments. I put that to my noble friend and say that all these amendments are probing to some extent at this stage. I would like to hear how he thinks that this can actually be operated.

My second group is quite small, because it contains only Amendment 135. Here I am grateful to the charity JUSTICE for its help in drawing attention to this issue. This amendment deals with Schedule 7, on page 202, where the priority offences are set out. Paragraph 4 of the schedule says that a priority offence includes:

“An offence under any of the following provisions of the Public Order Act 1986”.

One of those is Section 5 of that Act, “Harassment, alarm or distress”. Here I make a very different point and return to territory I have been familiar with in the past. We debated this only yesterday in Grand Committee, although I personally was unable to be there: the whole territory of hate crimes, harmful and upsetting words, and how they are to be judged and dealt with. In this case, my amendment would remove Section 5 of the Public Order Act from the list of priority offences.

If society has enough problems tolerating the police going round and telling us when we have done or said harmful and hurtful things and upbraiding us for it, is it really possible to consider—without the widest form of censorship—that it is appropriate for internet platforms to judge us, shut us down and shut down our communications on the basis of their judgment of what we should be allowed to say? We already know that there is widespread suspicion that some internet platforms are too quick to close down, for example, gender critical speech. We seem to be giving them something close to a legislative mandate to be very trigger-happy when it comes to closing down speech by saying that it engages, or could engage, Section 5 of the Public Order Act. I will come to the question of how they judge it in my third group, in a moment—but the noble Lord might be able to help me.

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

Just to reinforce the point the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, made on that, I certainly had experience of where the police became the complainants. They would request, for example, that you take down an English Defence League event, claiming that it would be likely to cause a public order problem. I have no sympathy whatever with the English Defence League, but I am very concerned about the police saying “You must remove a political demonstration” to a platform and citing the legal grounds for doing that. The noble Lord is on to a very valid point to be concerned about that.

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

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I really wonder whether the Government realise what they are walking into here. On the one hand, yesterday the Grand Committee was debating the statutory instrument putting in place new statutory guidance for the police on how to enforce, much more sensitively than in the past, non-crime hate incidents. However, on the other hand, the next day in this Chamber we are putting an obligation on a set of mostly foreign private companies to act as a police force to go around bullying us and closing us down if we say something that engages Section 5 of the Public Order Act. I think this is something the Government are going to regret, and I would very much like to hear what my noble friend has to say about that.

Finally, I come to my third group of amendments: Amendments 274, 278, 279 and 283. They are all related and on one topic. These relate to the text of the Bill on page 145, in Clause 170. Here we are discussing what judgments providers have to make when they come to decide what material to take down. Inevitably, they will have to make judgments. That is one of the unfortunate things about this Bill. A great deal of what we do in our lives is going to have to be based on judgments made by private companies, many of which are based abroad but which we are trying to legislate for.

It makes a certain sense that the law should say what they should take account of in making those judgments. But the guidance—or rather, the mandate—given to those companies by Clause 170 is, again, very hair-trigger. Clause 170(5), which I am proposing we amend, states:

“In making such judgements, the approach to be followed is whether a provider has reasonable grounds to infer that content is … of the kind in question”.

I am suggesting that “reasonable grounds to infer” should be replaced with “sufficient evidence to infer”, so that they have to be able to produce some evidence that they are justified in taking content down. The test should be higher than simply having “reasonable grounds”, which may rest on a suspicion and little evidence at all. So one of those amendments relates to strengthening that bar so that they must have real evidence before they can take censorship action.

I add only two words to subsection (6), which talks about reasonable grounds for the inference—it defines what the reasonable grounds are—that

“exist in relation to content and an offence if, following the approach in subsection (2)” and so on. I am saying “if and only if”—in other words, I make it clear that this is the only basis on which material can be censored using the provisions in this section, so as to limit it from going more widely. The third amendment in my group is essentially consequential to that.

We are all worried in this Committee about prospect of speech being censored in a way which infringes the freedom of speech rights that we fought so hard to establish and which are also embedded in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. We want to have a legal structure that does not empower providers to act as private sector censors ranging over what we do, except in circumstances where it is wholly justified and in the public interest. The language in the Bill is far too loose for this purpose. It does not give us the protection. It does not do what my noble friend said it would do when he spoke at Second Reading, which is to strike the right balance. These amendments in my third group—and indeed the one in my second group—are there to help strike the right balance. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Guildford The Bishop of Guildford Bishop 3:45, 27 April 2023

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 128, 130 and 132, as well as Amendments 143 to 153 in this grouping. They were tabled in the name of my right reverend colleague the Bishop of Derby, who is sorry that she cannot be here today.

The Church of England is the biggest provider of youth provision in our communities and educates around 1 million of our nation’s children. My colleague’s commitment to the principles behind these amendments also springs from her experience as vice chair of the Children’s Society. The amendments in this grouping are intended to strengthen legislation on online grooming for the purpose of child criminal exploitation, addressing existing gaps and ensuring that children are properly protected. They are also intended to make it easier for evidence of children being groomed online for criminal exploitation to be reported by online platforms to the police and the National Crime Agency.

Research from 2017 shows that one in four young people reported seeing illicit drugs advertised for sale on social media—a percentage that is likely to be considerably higher six years on. According to the Youth Endowment Fund in 2022, 20% of young people reported having seen online content promoting gang membership in the preceding 12 months, with 24% reporting content involving the carrying, use or promotion of weapons.

In relation to drugs, that later research noted that these platforms provide opportunities for dealers to build trust with potential customers, with young people reporting that they are more likely to see a groomer advertising drugs as a friend than as a dealer. This leaves young people vulnerable to exploitation, thereby reducing the scruples or trepidation they might feel about buying drugs in the first place. Meanwhile, it is also clear that social media is changing the operation of the county lines model. There is no longer the need to transport children from cities into the countryside to sell drugs, given that children who live in less populated areas can be groomed online as easily as in person. A range of digital platforms is therefore being used to target potential recruits among children and young people, with digital technologies also being deployed—for example, to monitor their whereabouts on a drugs run.

More research is being carried out by the Children’s Society, whose practitioners reported a notable increase in the number of perpetrators grooming children through social media and gaming sites during the first and second waves of the pandemic. Young people were being contacted with promotional material about lifestyles they could lead and the advantages of working within a gang, and were then asked to do jobs in exchange for money or status within this new group. It is true that some such offences could be prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, but there remains a huge disparity between the scale of exploitation and the number of those being charged under the Act. Without a definition of child exploitation for criminal purposes, large numbers of children are being groomed online and paying the price for crimes committed by some of their most dangerous and unscrupulous elders.

It is vital that we protect our children from online content which facilitates that criminal exploitation, in the same way that we are looking to protect them from sexual exploitation. Platforms must be required to monitor for illegal content related to child criminal exploitation on their sites and to have mechanisms in place for users to flag it with those platforms so it can be removed. This can be achieved by including modern slavery and trafficking, of which child criminal exploitation is a form, into the scope of illegal content within the Bill, which is what these amendments seek to do. It is also vital that the law sets out clear expectations on platforms to report evidence of child criminal exploitation to the National Crime Agency in the same way as they are expected to report content involving child sexual exploitation and abuse to enable child victims to be identified and to receive support. Such evidence may enable action against the perpetrators without the need of a disclosure from child victims. I therefore fully support and endorse the amendments standing in the name of the right reverend Prelate.

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

My Lords, this is again a very helpful set of amendments. I want to share some experience that shows that legality tests are really hard. Often from the outside there is an assumption that it is easy to understand what is legal and illegal in terms of speech, but in practice that is very rarely the case. There is almost never a bright line, except in a small class of child sexual abuse material where it is always illegal and, as soon as you see the material, you know it is illegal and you can act on it. In pretty much every other case, you have to look at what is in front of you.

I will take a very specific example. Something we had to deal with was images of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK in Turkey. If somebody shared a picture of Abdullah Öcalan, were they committing a very serious offence, which is the promotion of terrorism? Were they indicating support for the peace process that was taking place in Turkey? Were they showing that they support his socialist and feminist ideals? Were they supporting the YPG, a group in Syria to which we were sending arms, that venerates him? This is one example of many I could give where the content in front of you does not tell you very clearly whether or not the speech is illegal or speech that should be permitted. Indeed, we would take speech like that down and I would get complaints, including from Members of Parliament, saying, “Why have you removed that speech? I’m entitled to talk about Abdullah Öcalan”, and we would enter into an argument with them.

We would often ask lawyers in different countries whether they could tell us whether a speech was legal or illegal. The answer would come back as probably illegal, likely illegal, maybe illegal and, occasionally, definitely not illegal, but it was nearly always on the spectrum. The amendments we are proposing today are to try to understand where the Government intend people to draw that line when they get that advice. Let us assume the company wants to do the right thing and follow the instructions of the Bill and remove illegal content. At what level do they say it has met the test sufficiently, given that in the vast majority of cases, apart from the small class of illegal content, they are going to be given only a likelihood or a probability? As the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, pointed out, we have to try to insert this notion of sufficient evidence with Amendments 273, 275, 277, 280 and 281 in the names of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, who is unable to be in his place today. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, may also have signed them. We are trying to flesh out the point at which that illegality standard should kick in.

Just to understand again how this often works when the law gets involved, I say that there is a law in Germany; the short version is NetzDG. If there are any German speakers who can pronounce the compound noun that is its full title, there will be a prize. It is a long compound word that means “network enforcement Act”. It has been in place for a few years and it tells companies to do something similar—to remove content that is illegal in Germany. There would be cases where we would get a report from somebody saying, “This is illegal”, and we would take action; then it went into the German system and three months later we would finally get told whether it was actually illegal in a 12-page judgment that a German court had figured out. In the meantime, all we could do was work on our best guess while that process was going on. I think we need to be very clear that illegality is hard.

Cross-jurisdictional issues present us with another set of challenges. If both the speaker and the audience are in the United Kingdom, it is fairly clear. But in many cases, when we are talking about online platforms, one or other, or even both the speaker and the audience, may be outside the United Kingdom. Again, when does the speech become illegal? It may be entirely legal speech between two people in the United States. I think—and I would appreciate clarification from the Minister—that the working assumption is that if the speech was reported by someone not in the United State but in the UK, the platform would be required to restrict access to it from the UK, even though the speech is entirely legal in the jurisdiction in which it took place. Because the person in the UK encountered it, there would be a duty to restrict it. Again, it has been clarified that there is certainly not a duty to take the speech down, because it is entirely legal speech outside the UK. These cross-jurisdictional issues are interesting; I hope the Minister can clarify that.

The amendments also try to think about how this would work in practice. Amendment 287 talks about how guidance should be drawn up in consultation with UK lawyers. That is to avoid a situation where platforms are guessing too much at what UK lawyers want; they should at least have sought UK legal advice. That advice will then be fed into the guidance given to their human reviewers and their algorithms. That is the way, in practice, in which people will carry out the review. There is a really interesting practical question—which, again, comes up under NetzDG—about the extent to which platforms should be investing in legal review of content that is clearly against their terms of service.

There will be two kinds of platform. There will be some platforms that see themselves as champions of freedom of expression and say they will only remove stuff that is illegal in the UK, and everything else can stay up. I think that is a minority of platforms—they tend to be on the fringes. As soon as a platform gets a mainstream audience, it has to go further. Most platforms will have terms of service that go way beyond UK law. In that case, they will be removing the hate speech, and they will be confident that they will remove UK-illegal hate speech within that. They will remove the terrorist content. They will be confident and will not need to do a second test of the legality in order to be able to remove that content. There is a practical question about the extent to which platforms should be required to do a second test if something is already illegal under their terms.

There will be, broadly speaking again, four buckets of content. There will be content that is clearly against a platform’s terms, which it will want to get rid of immediately. It will not want to test it again for legality; it will just get rid of it.

There will be a second bucket of content that is not apparently against a platform’s terms but clearly illegal in the UK. That is a very small subset of content: in Germany, that is Holocaust denial content; in the United Kingdom, this Parliament has looked at Holocaust denial and chosen not to criminalise it, so that will not be there, but an equivalent for us would be migration advice. Migration advice will not be against the terms of service of most platforms, but in the Government’s intention, the Illegal Migration Bill is to make it illegal and require it to be removed, and the consequent effect will be that it will have to be removed under the terms of this Bill. So there will be that small set of content that is illegal in the UK but not against terms of service.

There will be a third bucket of content that is not apparently against the terms or the law, and that actually accounts for most of the complaints that a platform gets. I will choose my language delicately: complaint systems are easy, and people complain to make a point. They use complaint systems such as dislike buttons. The reality is that one of the most common sets of complaints you get is when there is a football match and the two opposing teams report the content on each other’s pages as illegal. They will do that every time, and you get used to it, and that is why you learn to discount mass-volume complaints. But again, we should be clear that there are a great many complaints that are merely vexatious.

The final bucket is of content that is unclear and legal review will be needed. Our amendment is intended to deal with those. A platform will go out and get advice. It is trying to understand at what point something like migration advice tips over into the illegal as opposed to being advice about going on holiday, and it is trying to understand that based on what it can immediately see. Once it has sought that advice, it will feed that back into the guidance to reviewers and the algorithms to try and remove content more effectively and be compliant with the Bill as a whole and not get into trouble with Ofcom.

Some areas are harder than others. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, already highlighted one: public order offences, which are extremely hard. If somebody says something offensive or holds an offensive political view—I suspect the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, may have something to say on this—people may well make contact and claim that it is in breach of public order law. On the face of it, they may have a reasonably arguable case but again, as a platform, you are left to make a decision.

There is a really interesting potential role for Ofcom here. One thing that is frustrating if you work at a platform is that you will often get stuck and when you go out and look for advice, you find it is hard to get it. When I ran a working group with some French lawyers, including quite senior judges, they came into the working group saying, “This is all straightforward—you’re just not removing the illegal stuff”. So we gave them real cases and it was interesting to see how half of the lawyers in the room would be on one side, saying “It must come down—it’s against French law” while the other half was saying, “How could you possibly take this down in France?”, because it was protected speech. It is really difficult to get that judgment but, interestingly, an unintended consequence of the Bill may be that Ofcom will ultimately get stuck in that position.

The Bill is not about Ofcom making rulings on individual items of content but if—as in the example I shared with the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, earlier—the police have said to a platform, “You must remove this demonstration. It is illegal”, and the platform said, “No, we judge it not to be illegal”, where are the police going to go? They will go to Ofcom and say, “Look, this platform is breaching the law”, so Ofcom is going to get pulled into that kind of decision-making. I do not envy it that but, again, we need to plan for that scenario because people who complain about illegality will go wherever they think they can get a hearing, and Ofcom will be one of those entities.

A huge amount on this illegal content area still needs to be teased out. I ask the Minister to respond specifically to the points I have raised around whose jurisdiction it is. If the speaker is speaking legally, because they are in a country outside the United Kingdom, what is the Government’s expectation on platforms in those circumstances? Will he look at the issue of the tests and where on this spectrum, from probably illegal through to likely to be illegal and may be illegal, the Government expect platforms to draw the line? If platforms have removed the bad content, will he consider carefully to what extent the Government think that the platforms should have to go through the process of investing time and energy to work out whether they removed it for illegality or for a terms of service breach? That is interesting but if our focus is on safety, frankly, it is wasted effort. We need to question how far we expect the platforms to do that.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Chair, Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill, Chair, Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill 4:00, 27 April 2023

My Lords, before speaking to my Amendment 137, I want to put a marker down to say that I strongly support Amendment 135 in the name of my noble friend Lord Moylan. I will not repeat anything that he said but I agree with absolutely every word.

Amendment 137 is in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham. This amendment is one of five which I have tabled with the purpose of meeting a core purpose of the Bill. In the words of my noble friend the Minister in response to Amendment 1, it is

“to protect users of all ages from being exposed to illegal content”—[Official Report, 19/4/23; col. 724.]

—in short, to ensure that what is illegal offline is illegal online.

If accepted, this small group of amendments would, I strongly believe, make a really important difference to millions of people’s lives—people who are not necessarily listed in Clause 12. I therefore ask the Committee to allow me to briefly demonstrate the need for these amendments through the prism of millions of people and their families working and living in rural areas. They are often quite isolated and working alone in remote communities, and are increasingly at risk of or are already suffering awful online abuse and harassment. This abuse often goes way beyond suffering; it destroys businesses and a way of life.

I find it extraordinary that the Bill seems to be absent of anything to do with livelihoods. It is all about focusing on feelings, which of course are important—and the most important focus is children—but people’s businesses and livelihoods are being destroyed through abuse online.

Research carried out by the Countryside Alliance has revealed a deeply disturbing trend online that appears to be disproportionately affecting people who live in rural areas and who are involved in rural pursuits. Beyond direct abuse, a far more insidious tactic that activists have adopted involves targeting businesses involved in activities of which they disapprove, such as livestock farming or hosting shoots. They post fake reviews on platforms including Tripadvisor and Google Maps, and their aim is to damage the victim, their business and their reputation by, to put it colloquially, trashing their business and thereby putting off potential customers. This is what some call trolling.

Let me be clear that I absolutely defend, to my core, the right to freedom of expression and speech, and indeed the right to offend. Just upsetting someone is way below the bar for the Bill, or any legislation. I am deeply concerned about the hate crime—or non-crime—issue we debated yesterday; in fact, I put off reading the debate because I so disagree with this nonsense from the College of Policing.

Writing a negative review directly based on a negative experience is entirely acceptable in my book, albeit unpleasant for the business targeted. My amendments seek to address something far more heinous and wrong, which, to date, can only be addressed as libel and, therefore, through the civil courts. Colleagues in both your Lordships’ House and in another place shared with me tremendously upsetting examples from their constituents and in their neighbourhoods of how anonymous activists are ruining the lives of hard-working people who love this country and are going the extra mile to defend our culture, historic ways of life and freedoms.

Fortunately, through the Bill, the Government are taking an important step by introducing a criminal offence of false communications. With the leave of the Committee, I will briefly cite and explain the other amendments in order to make sense of Amendment 137. One of the challenges of the offence of false communications is the need to recognise that so much of the harm that underpins the whole reason why the Bill is necessary is the consequence of allowing anonymity. It is so easy to destroy and debilitate others by remaining anonymous and using false communications. Why be anonymous if you have any spine at all to stand up for what you believe? It is not possible offline—when writing a letter to a newspaper, for example—so why is it acceptable online? The usual tech business excuse of protecting individuals in rogue states is no longer acceptable, given the level of harm that anonymity causes here at home.

Therefore, my Amendment 106 seeks to address the appalling effect of harm, of whatever nature, arising from false or threatening communications committed by unverified or anonymous users—this is what we refer to as trolling. Amendments 266 and 267, in my name and those of my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and my noble friend Lord Leicester, would widen the scope of this new and welcome offence of false communications to include financial harm, and harm to the subject of the false message arising from its communication to third parties.

The Bill will have failed unless we act beyond feelings and harm to the person and include loss of livelihood. As I said, I am amazed that it is not front and centre of the Bill after safety for our children. Amendment 268, also supported by my noble and learned friend, would bring within the scope of the communications offences the instigation of such offences by others—for example, Twitter storms, which can involve inciting others to make threats without doing so directly. Currently, we are unsure whether encouraging others to spread false information—for example, by posting fake reviews of businesses for ideologically motivated reasons—would become an offence under the Bill. We believe that it should, and my Amendment 268 would address this issue.

I turn briefly to the specifics of my Amendment 137. Schedule 7 lists a set of “priority offences” that social media platforms must act to prevent, and they must remove messages giving rise to certain offences. However, the list does not include the new communications offences created elsewhere in Part 10. We believe that this is a glaring anomaly. If there is a reason why the new communications offences are not listed, it is important that we understand why. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can explain.

The practical effect of Amendment 137 would be to include the communications offences introduced in the Bill and communications giving rise to them within the definition of “relevant offence” and “priority illegal content” for the purposes of Clause 53(4) and (7) and otherwise.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

I ask the Committee to have a level of imagination here because I have been asked to read the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville—

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

I do not know who advised the noble Baroness—and forgive me for getting up and getting all former Leader on her—but this is a practice that we seem to have adopted in the last couple of years and that I find very odd. It is perfectly proper for the noble Baroness to deploy the noble Viscount’s arguments, but to read his speech is completely in contravention of our guidance.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

I beg the pardon of the Committee. I asked about it and was misinformed; I will do as the noble Baroness says.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, is unable to be with us. He put his name to Amendments 273, 275, 277 and 280. His concern is that the Bill sets the threshold for illegality too low and that in spite of the direction provided by Clause 170, the standards for determining illegality are too vague.

I will make a couple of points on that thought. Clause 170(6) directs that a provider must have

“reasonable grounds to infer that all elements necessary for the commission of the offence, including mental elements, are present or satisfied”,

but that does not mean that the platform has to be certain that the content is illegal before it takes it down. This is concerning when you take it in combination with what or who will make judgments on illegality.

If a human moderator makes the decision, it will depend on the resources and time available to them as to how much information they gather in order to make that judgment. Unlike in a court case, when a wide range of information and context can be gathered, when it comes to decisions about content online, these resources are very rarely available to human moderators, who have a vast amount of content to get through.

If an automated system makes the judgment, it is very well established that algorithms are not good at context—the Communications and Digital Committee took evidence on this repeatedly when I was on it. AI simply uses the information available in the content itself to make a decision, which can lead to significant missteps. Clause 170(3) provides the requirement for the decision-makers to judge whether there is a defence for the content. In the context of algorithms, it is very unclear how they will come to such a judgment from the content itself.

I understand that these are probing amendments, but I think the concern is that the vagueness of the definition will lead to too much content being taken down. This concern was supported by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which wrote to the former Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, on that matter. I apologise again.

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

My Lords, I support the amendments in this group that probe how removing illegal material is understood and will be used under the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, explained a lot of my concerns, as indeed did the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, via his avatar. We have heard a range of very interesting contributions that need to be taken seriously by the Government. I have put my name to a number of amendments.

The identification of illegal material might be clear and obvious in some cases—even many cases. It sounds so black and white: “Don’t publish illegal material”. But defining communications of this nature can be highly complex, so much so that it is traditionally reserved for law enforcement bodies and the judicial system. We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that, despite Home Secretaries, this House, regulations and all sorts of laws having indicated that non-crime hate incidents, for example, should not be pursued by the police, they continue to pursue them as though they are criminal acts. That is exactly the kind of issue we have.

I noted earlier that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, made a passionate intervention about, of all things, Andrew Tate and his illegality in relation to this Bill. That prompted me to think a number of things. Andrew Tate is an influencer who I despise, as I do the kind of things he says. But, as far as I know, the criminal allegations he faces are not yet resolved, so he has to be seen as innocent until proven guilty. Most of what he has online that is egregious might well be in bad taste, as people say—I would say that it is usually misogynist—but it is not against the law. If we get to a situation where that is described as illegality, that is the kind of thing that I worry about. As we have heard from other noble Lords, removing so-called illegal content for the purpose of complying with this regulatory system will mean facing such dilemmas.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 4:15, 27 April 2023

In talking about individuals and investigations, the noble Baroness reminded me of one class of content where we do have clarity, and that is contempt of court. That is a frequent request. We know that it is illegal in that case because a judge writes to the company and says, “You must not allow this to be said because it is in contempt of court”, but that really is the exception. In most other cases, someone is saying, “I think it is illegal”. In live proceedings, in most cases it is absolutely clear because a judge has told you.

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

That is very helpful.

I am concerned that removing so-called illegal content for the purpose of complying with the regulatory system covers not only that which reaches conviction in a criminal court but possibly anything that a platform determines could be illegal, and therefore it undermines our own legal system. As I have said, that marks a significant departure from the rule of law. It seems that the state is asking or mandating private companies to make determinations about what constitutes illegality.

The obligations on a platform to determine what constitutes illegality could obviously become a real problem, particularly in relation to limitations on free expression. As we have already heard, the Public Order Act 1986 criminalises, for example, those who stir up hatred through the use of words, behaviour or written material. That is contentious in the law offline. By “contentious”, I mean that it is a matter of difficulty that requires the full rigour of the criminal justice system, understanding the whole history of established case law. That is all necessary to make a conviction under that law for offences of this nature.

Now we appear to be saying that, without any of that, social media companies should make the decision, which is a nerve-racking situation to be in. We have already heard the slippery phrase “reasonable grounds to infer”. If that was the basis on which you were sent to prison—if they did not have to prove that you were guilty but they had reasonable grounds to infer that you might be, without any evidence—I would be worried, yet reasonable grounds to infer that the content could be illegal is the basis on which we are asking for those decisions to be made. That is significantly below the ordinary burden of proof required to determine that an illegal act has been committed. Under this definition, I fear that platforms will be forced to overremove and censor what ultimately will be entirely lawful speech.

Can the Minister consider what competency social media companies have to determine what is lawful? We have heard some of the dilemmas from somebody who was in that position—let alone the international complications, as was indicated. Will all these big tech companies have to employ lots of ex-policemen and criminal lawyers? How will it work? It seems to me that there is a real lack of qualifications in that sphere— that is not a criticism, because those people decided to work in big tech, not in criminal law, and yet we are asking them to pursue this. That is a concern.

I will also make reference to what I think are the controversies around government Amendments 136A and 136B to indicate the difficulties of these provisions. They concern illegal activity—such as “assisting unlawful immigration”, illegal entry, human trafficking and similar offences—but I am unsure as to how this would operate. While it is the case that certain entrances to the UK are illegal, I suddenly envisage a situation where a perfectly legitimate political debate—for example, about the small boats controversy—would be taken down, and that people advocating for a position against the Government’s new Illegal Migration Bill could be accused of supporting illegality. What exactly will be made illegal in those amendments to the Online Safety Bill?

The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made a fascinating speech about an interesting group of amendments. Because of the way the amendments are grouped, I feel that we have moved to a completely different debate, so I will not go into any detail on this subject. Anonymous trolling, Twitter storms and spreading false information are incredibly unpleasant. I am often the recipient of them—at least once a week—so I know personally that you feel frustrated that people tell lies and your reputation is sullied. However, I do not think that these amendments offer the basis on which that activity should be censored, and I will definitely argue against removing anonymity clauses—but that will be in another group. It is a real problem, but I do not think that the solution is contained in these amendments.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, my contribution will be less officious than my intervention earlier in this group. In the last couple of years since I returned to the House—as I describe it—having spent time at the Charity Commission, I have noticed a new practice emerging of noble Lords reading out other people’s speeches. Every time I had seen it happen before, I had not said anything, but today I thought, “I can’t sit here and not say anything again”. I apologise for my intervention.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Moylan for bringing forward his amendments and for introducing them in the incredibly clear way he did; they cover some very complex and diverse issues. I know that there are other amendments in the group which might be described as similar to his.

There are a couple of things I want to highlight. One interesting thing about the debate on this group is the absence of some of our legal friends—I apologise to my noble friend Lady Buscombe, who is of course a very distinguished lawyer. The point I am making is that we are so often enriched by a lot of legal advice and contributions on some of the more challenging legal issues that we grapple with, but we do not have that today, and this is a very difficult legal issue.

It is worth highlighting again, as has been touched on a little in some of the contributions, the concern, as I understand it, with how the Bill is drafted in relation to illegal content and the potential chilling effect of these clauses on social media platforms. As has already been said, there is a concern that it might lead them to take a safety-first approach in order to avoid breaking the law and incurring the sanctions and fines that come with the Bill, which Ofcom will have the power to apply. That is the point we are concerned with here. It is the way in which this is laid out, and people who are much better equipped than I am have already explained the difference between evidence versus reasonable grounds to infer.

What the noble Lord, Lord Allan, hit on in his contribution is also worth taking into account, and that is the role of Ofcom in this situation. One of the things I fear, as we move into an implementation phase and the consequences of the Bill start to impact on the social media firms, is the potential for the regulator to be weaponised in a battle on the cultural issues that people are becoming increasingly exercised about. I do not have an answer to this, but I think it is important to understand the danger of where we might get to in the expectations of the regulator if we create a situation where the social media platforms are acting in a way that means people are looking for recourse or a place to generate further an argument and a battle that will not be helpful at all.

I am not entirely sure, given my lack of legal expertise —this is why I would have been very grateful for some legal expertise on this group—whether what my noble friend is proposing in his amendments is the solution, but I think we need to be very clear that this is a genuine problem. I am not sure, as things stand in the Bill, that we should be comfortable that it is not going to create problems. We need to find a way to be satisfied that this has been dealt with properly.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative

It is a great honour to follow my noble friend. I completely agree with her that this is a powerful discussion and there are big problems in this area. I am grateful also to my noble friend Lord Moylan for raising this in the first place. It has been a very productive discussion.

I approach the matter from a slightly different angle. I will not talk about the fringe cases—the ones where there is ambiguity, difficulty of interpretation, or responsibility or regulatory override, all of which are very important issues. The bit I am concerned about is where primary priority content that clearly demonstrates some kind of priority offence is not followed up by the authorities at all.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan, referred to this point, although he did slightly glide over it, as though implying, if I understood him correctly, that this was not an area of concern because, if a crime had clearly been committed, it would be followed up on. My fear and anxiety is that the history of the internet over the last 25 years shows that crimes—overt and clear crimes that are there for us to see—are very often not followed up by the authorities. This is another egregious example of where the digital world is somehow exceptionalised and does not have real-world rules applied to it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, quite reasonably asked me about Andrew Tate. That matter is sub judice; the noble Lord, Lord Allan, referred to it and I do not want to drag the conversation into dangerous legal territory. However, she makes the good point that we sometimes see, particularly in the online abuse of women, offences that are quite clearly crimes; they are crimes of rape, violent abuse and child abuse. It would not take any of us long to find videos that showed clear examples of crime, but very often they are not followed up with the energy and determination that they could or should be, because things on the internet somehow do not seem to touch the authorities in the way they should do.

His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services—

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 4:30, 27 April 2023

I want to clarify one point. I have had a slightly different experience, which is that for many people—women, at least—whom I have talked to recently, there is an over-enthusiasm and an over-zealous attitude to policing the speech of particular women and, as we have already heard, gender-critical women. It is often under the auspices of hate speech and there is all sorts of discussion about whether the police are spending too long trawling through social media. By contrast, if you want to get a policeman or policewoman involved in a physical crime in your area, you cannot get them to come out. So I am not entirely convinced. I think policing online speech at least is taking up far too much of the authorities’ time, not too little time, and distracting them from solving real social and criminal activity.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative

I defer to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on speech crime. That is not the area of my expertise, and it is not the purpose of my points. My points were to do with the kinds of crime that affect children in particular. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services is very specific about that point. It says that “unacceptable delays are commonplace” and it gives a very large number of case studies. I will not go through them now because it is Thursday afternoon, but I think noble Lords can probably imagine the kinds of things we are talking about. They include years of delay, cases not taken seriously or overlooked, evidence lost, and so forth. The report found that too often children were put at risk because of this, and offenders were allowed to escape justice, and it gave 17 recommendations for how the police force should adapt in order to meet this challenge.

So my questions to the Minister are these. When we talk about things such as age verification for hardcore porn, we are quite often told that we do not need to worry about some of this because it is covered by illegal content provisions, and we should just leave it to the police to sort out. His Majesty’s Inspectorate gives clear evidence—this is a recent report from last month—that this is simply not happening in the way it should be. I therefore wondered what, if anything, is in the Bill to try to close down this particular gap. That would be very helpful indeed.

If it is really not for the purposes of this Bill at all—if this is actually to do with other laws and procedures, other departments and the way in which the resources for the police are allocated, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, alluded to—what can the Government do outside the boundaries of this legislation to mobilise the police and the prosecution services to address what I might term “digital crimes”: that is, crimes that would be followed up with energy if they occurred in the real world but, because they are in the digital world, are sometimes overlooked or forgotten?

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

My Lords, I would like to mention one issue that I forgot to mention, and I think it would be more efficient to pose the question now to the Minister rather than interject when he is speaking.

On the Government’s Amendments 136A, 136B and 136C on the immigration offences, the point I want to make is that online services can be literal life-savers for people who are engaged in very dangerous journeys, including journeys across the Channel. I hope the Minister will be clear that the intention here is to require platforms to deal only with content, for example, from criminals who are offering trafficking services, and that there is no intention to require platforms somehow to withdraw services from the victims of those traffickers when they are using those services in the interest of saving their own lives or seeking advice that is essential to preserving their own safety.

That would create—as I know he can imagine—real ethical and moral dilemmas, and we should not be giving any signal that we intend to require platforms to withdraw services from people who are in desperate need of help, whatever the circumstances.

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

My Lords, we seem to have done it again—a very long list of amendments in a rather ill-conceived group has generated a very interesting discussion. We are getting quite good at this, exchanging views across the table, across the Committee, even within the Benches—Members who perhaps have not often talked together are sharing ideas and thoughts, and that is a wonderful feeling.

I want to start with an apology. I think I may be the person who got the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, shopped by the former leader—once a leader, always a leader. What I thought I was being asked was whether the Committee would be interested in hearing the views of the noble Viscount who could not be present, and I was very keen, because when he does speak it is from a point of view that we do not often hear. I did not know that it was a transgression of the rules—but of course it is not, really, because we got round it. Nevertheless, I apologise for anything that might have upset the noble Baroness’s blood pressure—it did not stop her making a very good contribution later.

We have covered so much ground that I do not want to try and summarise it in one piece, because you cannot do that. The problem with the group as it stands is that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and myself must have some secret connection, because we managed to put down almost the same amendments. They were on issues that then got overtaken by the Minister, who finally got round to—I mean, who put down a nice series of amendments which exactly covered the points we made, so we can lose all those. But this did not stop the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford making some very good additional points which I think we all benefited from.

I welcome back the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, after her illness; she gave us a glimpse of what is to come from her and her colleagues, but I will leave the particular issue that she raised for the Minister to respond to. It raises an issue that I am not competent on, but it is a very important one—we need to get the right balance between what is causing the alarm and difficulty outside in relation to what is happening on the internet, and I think we all agree with her that we should not put any barrier in the way of dealing with that.

Indeed, that was the theme of a number of the points that have been raised on the question of what is or can constitute illegal content, and how we judge it. It is useful to hear again from the master about how you do it in practice. I cannot imagine being in a room of French lawyers and experts and retaining my sanity, let alone making decisions that affect the ability of people to carry on, but the noble Lord did it; he is still here and lives to tell the tale—bearded or otherwise.

The later amendments, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, are taking us round in a circle towards the process by which Ofcom will exercise the powers that it is going to get in this area. These are probably worth another debate on their own, and maybe it will come up in a different form, because—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, made this point as well—there is a problem in having an independent regulator that is also the go-to function for getting advice on how others have to make decisions that are theirs to rule on at the end if they go wrong. That is a complicated way of saying that we may be overloading Ofcom if we also expect it to provide a reservoir of advice on how you deal with the issues that the Bill puts firmly on the companies—I agree that this is a problem that we do not really have an answer to.

My amendments were largely overtaken by the Government’s amendments, but the main one I want to talk about was Amendment 272. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, is not here, because her expertise is in an area that I want to talk about, which is fraud—cyber fraud in particular—and how that is going to be brought into the Bill. The issue, which I think has been raised by Which?, but a number of other people have also written to us about it, is that the Bill in Clauses 170 and 171 is trying to establish how a platform should identify illegal content in relation to fraud—but it is quite prescriptive. In particular, it goes into some detail which I will leave for the Minister to respond to, but uniquely it sets out a specific way for gathering information to determine whether content is illegal in this area, although it may have applicability in other areas.

One of the points that have to be taken into account is whether the platform is using human moderators, automated systems or a combination of the two. I am not quite sure why that is there in the Bill; that is really the basis for the tabling of our amendments. Clearly, one would hope that the end result is whether or not illegality has taken place, not how that information has been gathered. If one must make concessions to the process of law because a judgment is made that, because it is automated, it is in some way not as valid as if it had been done by a human moderator, there seems to be a whole world there that we should not be going into. I certainly hope that that is not going to be the case if we are talking about illegality concerning children or other vulnerable people, but that is how the Bill reads at present; I wonder whether the Minister can comment on that.

There is a risk of consumers being harmed here. The figures on fraud in the United Kingdom are extraordinary; the fact that it is not the top priority for everybody, let alone the Government, is extraordinary. It is something like the equivalent of consumers being scammed at the rate of around £7.5 billion per year. A number of awful types of scamming have emerged only because of the internet and social media. They create huge problems of anxiety and emotional distress, with lots of medical care and other things tied in if you want to work out the total bill. So we have a real problem here that we need to settle. It is great that it is in the Bill, but it would be a pity if the movement towards trying to resolve it is in any way infringed on by there being imperfect instructions in the Bill. I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to respond to that; I would be happy to discuss it with him later, if that is possible.

As a whole, this is an interesting question as we move away from what a crime is towards how people judge how to deal with what they think is a crime but may not be. The noble Lord, Lord Allan, commented on how to do it in practice but one hopes that any initial problems will be overcome as we move forward and people become more experienced with this.

When the Joint Committee considered this issue, we spent a long time talking about why we were concerned about having certainty on the legal prescription in the Bill; that is why we were very much against the idea of “legal but harmful” because it seemed too subjective and too subject to difficulties. Out of that came another thought, which answers the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell: so much of this is about fine judgments on certain things that are there in stone and that you can work to but you then have to interpret them.

There is a role for Parliament here, I think; we will come on to this in later amendments but, if there is a debate to be had on this, let us not forget the points that have been made here today. If we are going to think again about Ofcom’s activity in practice, that is the sort of thing that either a Joint Committee or Select Committees of the two Houses could easily take on board as an issue that needs to be reflected on, with advice given to Parliament about how it might be taken forward. This might be the answer in the medium term.

In the short term, let us work to the Bill and make sure that it works. Let us learn from the experience but let us then take time out to reflect on it; that would be my recommendation but, obviously, that will be subject to the situation after we finish the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

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, as well as throwing up some interesting questions of law, this debate has provoked some interesting tongue-twisters. The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, offered a prize to the first person to pronounce the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz; I shall claim my prize in our debate on a later group when inviting him to withdraw his amendment.

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

I thank the noble Lord.

I was pleased to hear about Wicipedia Cymraeg—there being no “k” in Welsh. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, there has been a very good conversational discussion in this debate, as befits Committee and a self-regulating House. My noble friend Lady Stowell is right to point out matters of procedure, although we were grateful to know why the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, supports the amendments in question.

My noble friend Lord Moylan’s first group within a group—Amendments 17 and 18—alters the duties in Clause 9 of the Bill. These amendments would weaken the illegal content duties by removing any obligation on services to take upstream measures to remove illegal content, including child sexual abuse material. They would therefore seriously undermine the Bill’s focus on proactive risk management. Similarly, Amendments 272 to 283 seek to alter how services should judge what is illegal. I understand that noble Lords are concerned, rightly, about the over-removal of content.

The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would require providers to have sufficient evidence that content is illegal before taking action against it, replacing the current test of “reasonable grounds to infer”. Sufficient evidence is a subjective measure. We have discussed the difficulties for those who must make these decisions and we think that this formulation would set an unclear threshold for providers to determine how they should judge illegality, which could result in the under-removal of illegal content, putting users at risk, or the over-removal of it, with adverse consequences for freedom of expression.

The amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan would narrow the test to require the removal only of content which, based on all reasonably available contextual evidence, is manifestly illegal, and we think that that threshold is too high. Context and analysis can give a provider good reasons to infer that content is illegal even though the illegality is not immediately obvious. This is the case with, for example, some terrorist content which is illegal only if shared with terrorist purposes in mind, and intimate image abuse, where additional information or context is needed to know whether content has been posted against the subject’s wishes.

Amendment 276 would remove the detail in Clause 170 that specifies the point at which providers must treat content as illegal or fraudulent. That would enable providers to interpret their safety duties in broader ways. Rather than having greater discretion, Ofcom would be given less certainty about whether it could successfully take enforcement action. I take the point raised by noble Lords about the challenges of how platforms will identify illegal content, and I agree with my noble friend Lady Stowell that the contributions of noble and learned Lords would be helpful in these debates as well. However, Clause 170 sets out how companies should determine whether or not content is illegal or an advertisement is fraudulent. I will say a little more about the context behind that, as the noble Lord, Lord Allan, may have a question.

The Bill recognises that it will often be difficult for providers to make judgments about content without considering the context. Clause 170 therefore clarifies that providers must ascertain whether, on the basis of on all reasonably available information, there are reasonable grounds to infer that all the relevant elements of the offence—including the mental elements—are present and that no defence is available. The amount of information that would be reasonably available to a particular service provider will depend on the size and capacity of the provider, among other factors.

Companies will need to ensure that they have effective systems to enable them to check the broader context relating to content when deciding whether or not to remove it. This will provide greater certainty about the standard to be applied by providers when assessing content, including judgments about whether or not content is illegal. We think that protects against over-removal by making it clear that platforms are not required to remove content merely on the suspicion of it being illegal. Beyond that, the framework also contains provisions about how companies’ systems and processes should approach questions of mental states and defences when considering whether or not content is an offence in the scope of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 4:45, 27 April 2023

I am struggling a little to understand why the Minister thinks that sufficient evidence is subjective, and therefore, I assume, reasonable grounds to infer is objective. Certainly, in my lexicon, evidence is more objective than inference, which is more subjective. I was reacting to that word. I am not sure that he has fully made the case as to why his wording is better.

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

I take the noble Lord’s point and my noble friend’s further contribution. I will see whether I can give a clearer and more succinct description in writing to flesh that out, but that it is the reason that we have alighted on the words that we have.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan, also asked about jurisdiction. If an offence has been committed in the UK and viewed by a UK user, it can be treated as illegal content. That is set out in Clause 53(11), which says:

“For the purposes of determining whether content amounts to an offence, no account is to be taken of whether or not anything done in relation to the content takes place in any part of the United Kingdom”.

I hope that that bit, at least, is clearly set out to the noble Lord’s satisfaction. It looks like it may not be.

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

Again, I think that that is clear. I understood from the Bill that, if an American says something that would be illegal were they to be in the United Kingdom, we would still want to exclude that content. But that still leaves it open, and I just ask the question again, for confirmation. If all of the activities are outside the United Kingdom—Americans talking to each other, as it were—and a British person objects, at what point would the platform be required to restrict the content of the Americans talking to each other? Is it pre-emptively or only as and when somebody in the United Kingdom objects to it? We should flesh out that kind of practical detail before this becomes law.

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

If it has been committed in the UK and is viewed by a UK user, it can be treated as illegal. I will follow up on the noble Lord’s further points ahead of the next stage.

Amendment 272 explicitly provides that relevant information that is reasonably available to a provider includes information submitted by users in complaints. Providers will already need to do this when making judgments about content, as it will be both relevant and reasonably available.

My noble friend Lord Moylan returned to the question that arose on day 2 in Committee, querying the distinction between “protect” and “prevent”, and suggesting that a duty to protect would or could lead to the excessive removal of content. To be clear, the duty requires platforms to put in place proportionate systems and processes designed to prevent users encountering content. I draw my noble friend’s attention to the focus on systems and processes in that. This requires platforms to design their services to achieve the outcome of preventing users encountering such content. That could include upstream design measures, as well as content identification measures, once content appears on a service. By contrast, a duty to protect is a less stringent duty and would undermine the proactive nature of the illegal content duties for priority offences.

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

Before he moves on, is my noble friend going to give any advice to, for example, Welsh Wikipedia, as to how it will be able to continue, or are the concerns about smaller sites simply being brushed aside, as my noble friend explicates what the Bill already says?

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

I will deal with all the points in the speech. If I have not done so by the end, and if my noble friend wants to intervene again, I would be more than happy to hear further questions, either to answer now or write to him about.

Amendments 128 to 133 and 143 to 153, in the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, seek to ensure that priority offences relating to modern slavery and human trafficking, where they victimise children, are included in Schedule 6. These amendments also seek to require technology companies to report content which relates to modern slavery and the trafficking of children—including the criminal exploitation of children—irrespective of whether it is sexual exploitation or not. As noble Lords know, the strongest provisions in the Bill relate to children’s safety, and particularly to child sexual exploitation and abuse content. These offences are captured in Schedule 6. The Bill includes a power for Ofcom to issue notices to companies requiring them to use accredited technology or to develop new technology to identify, remove and prevent users encountering such illegal content, whether communicated publicly or privately.

These amendments would give Ofcom the ability to issue such notices for modern slavery content which affects children, even when there is no child sexual exploitation or abuse involved. That would not be appropriate for a number of reasons. The power to tackle illegal content on private communications has been restricted to the identification of content relating to child sexual exploitation and abuse because of the particular risk to children posed by content which is communicated privately. Private spaces online are commonly used by networks of criminals to share illegal images—as we have heard—videos, and tips on the commitment of these abhorrent offences. This is highly unlikely to be reported by other offenders, so it will go undetected if companies do not put in place measures to identify it. Earlier in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Allan, suggested that those who receive it should report it, but of course, in a criminal context, a criminal recipient would not do that.

Extending this power to cover the identification of modern slavery in content which is communicated privately would be challenging to justify and could represent a disproportionate intrusion into someone’s privacy. Furthermore, modern slavery is usually identified through patterns of behaviour or by individual reporting, rather than through content alone. This reduces the impact that any proactive technology required under this power would have in tackling such content. Schedule 6 already sets out a comprehensive list of offences relating to child sexual exploitation and abuse which companies must tackle. If these offences are linked to modern slavery—for example, if a child victim of these offences has been trafficked—companies must take action. This includes reporting content which amounts to an offence under Schedule 6 to the National Crime Agency or another reporting body outside of the UK.

My noble friend Lord Moylan’s Amendment 135 seeks to remove the offence in Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 from the list of priority offences. His amendment would mean that platforms were not required to take proactive measures to reduce the risk of content which is threatening or abusive, and intended to cause a user harassment, alarm or distress, from appearing on their service. Instead, they would be obliged to respond only once they are made aware of the content, which would significantly reduce the impact of the Bill’s framework for tackling such threatening and abusive content. Given the severity of the harm which can be caused by that sort of content, it is right that companies tackle it. Ofcom will have to include the Public Order Act in its guidance about illegal content, as provided for in Clause 171.

Government Amendments 136A to 136C seek to strengthen the illegal content duties by adding further priority offences to Schedule 7. Amendments 136A and 136B will add human trafficking and illegal entry offences to the list of priority offences in the Bill. Crucially, this will mean that platforms will need to take proactive action against content which encourages or assists others to make dangerous, illegal crossings of the English Channel, as well as those who use social media to arrange or facilitate the travel of another person with a view to their exploitation.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan, asked whether these amendments would affect the victims of trafficking themselves. This is not about going after the victims. Amendment 136B addresses only content which seeks to help or encourage the commission of an existing immigration offence; it will have no impact on humanitarian communications. Indeed, to flesh out a bit more detail, Section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act makes it an offence to arrange or facilitate the travel of another person, including through recruitment, with a view to their exploitation. Facilitating a victim’s travel includes recruiting them. This offence largely appears online in the form of advertisements to recruit people into being exploited. Some of the steps that platforms could put in place include setting up trusted flagger programmes, signposting users to support and advice, and blocking known bad actors. Again, I point to some of the work which is already being done by social media companies to help tackle both illegal channel crossings and human trafficking.

Government Amendment 136C will add the offence of foreign interference to the list of priority offences in the Bill. As your Lordships will know, the Government previously made an amendment via the National Security Bill to include this offence in this Bill. Because of the relative pace at which these two Bills are now passing through Parliament, we are now doing it directly in the Online Safety Bill.

My noble friend Lady Buscombe’s Amendment 137 seeks to list the false and threatening communication offences in Schedule 7. Listing the communication offences as priority offences would require platforms to identify and determine the illegality of such content proactively. I appreciate the reasons she set out for raising this issue, but as these offences rely heavily on a user’s mental state, it would be challenging for services to identify this content without significant additional context. Let me reassure her, however, that platforms will still need to have systems and processes in place to remove this content quickly when it is reported to them, as with all other illegal content which is not in Schedule 7.

My noble friend Lord Bethell anticipated later debates on age verification and pornography. If he permits, I will come back on his points then. I have noted his question for that discussion as well as the question from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on financial scams and fraud, which we will have the chance to discuss in full. I am not sure if my noble friend Lord Moylan wants to ask a further question at this juncture or to accept a reassurance that I will consult the Official Report and write on any further points he raised which I have not dealt with.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 5:00, 27 April 2023

My Lords, it is genuinely difficult to summarise such a wide-ranging debate, which was of a very high standard. Only one genuinely bright idea has emerged from the whole thing: as we go through Committee, each group of amendments should be introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, because it is only after I have heard his contribution on each occasion that I have begun to understand the full complexity of what I have been saying. I suspect I am not alone in that and that we could all benefit from hearing the noble Lord before getting to our feet. That is not meant to sound the slightest bit arch; it is absolutely genuine.

The debate expressed a very wide range of concerns. Concerns about gang grooming and recruiting were expressed on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and my noble friend Lady Buscombe expressed concerns about trolling of country businesses. However, I think it is fair to say that most speakers focused on the following issues. The first was the definition of legality, which was so well explicated by the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam. The second was the judgment bar that providers have to pass to establish whether something should be taken down. The third was the legislative mandating of private foreign companies to censor free speech rights that are so hard-won here in this country. These are the things that mainly concern us.

I was delighted that I found myself agreeing so much with what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, even though she was speaking in another voice or on behalf of another person. If her own sentiments coincide with the sentiments of the noble Viscount—

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

I am sorry to intrude, but I must say now on the record that I was speaking on my own behalf. The complication of measuring and those particular things are terribly important to establish, so I am once again happy to agree with the noble Lord.

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

I am delighted to hear the noble Baroness say that, and it shows that that pool of common ground we share is widening every time we get to our feet. However, the pool is not particularly widening, I am afraid to say—at least in respect of myself; other noble Lords may have been greatly reassured—as regards my noble friend the Minister who, I am afraid, has not in any sense addressed the issues about free speech that I and many other noble Lords raised. On some issues we in the Committee are finding a consensus that is drifting away from the Minister. We probably need to put our heads together more closely on some of these issues with the passage of time in Committee.

My noble friend also did not say anything that satisfied me in respect of the practical operation of these obligations for smaller sites. He speaks smoothly and persuasively of risk-based proactive approaches without saying that, for a large number of sites, this legislation will mean a complete re-engineering of their business model. For example, where Wikipedia operates in a minority language, such as in Welsh Wikipedia, which is the largest Welsh language website in the world, if its model is to involve monitoring what is put out by the community and correcting it as it goes along, rather than having a model in advance that is designed to prevent things being put there in the first place, then it is very likely to close down. If that is one of the consequences of this Bill the Government will soon hear about it.

Finally, although I remain concerned about public order offences, I have to say to the Minister that if he is so concerned about the dissemination of alarm among the population under the provisions of the Public Order Act, what does he think that His Majesty’s Government were doing on Sunday at 3 pm? I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 17 withdrawn.

Amendment 18 not moved.