Amendment 124

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (8th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 23 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench 9:45, 23 May 2023

My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendments 124, 126 and 227 to which my name is attached. I will reserve my comments mostly to the Bill’s loophole on newspaper comment sections.

These forums would qualify as social media platforms under the Bill’s definition were it not for a special exemption in Clause 49. They have been found to host some of the most appalling and despicable content online. I will paraphrase some examples so as not to subject the Committee to the specific language used, but they include anti-Semitic slurs in comments appearing under articles covering a violent attack on a synagogue; Holocaust denial; and speculation that Covid was created and spread by a secretive global cabal of powerful individuals who control the world’s leaders like puppets.

Some of the worst abuse is reserved for women in public life, which I and others in your Lordships’ House have personally experienced. In an article about a female leader, comments included that she should be struck down or executed by the SAS. Others commented graphically on her appearance and made disturbing sexual remarks. Another woman, Professor Fowler—who the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has already discussed —was described as having a sick mind and a mental disorder; one comment implied that a noose should be prepared for her. There are many more examples.

Comment sections are in too many cases badly regulated and dangerous places for members of the public. The exemption for them is unwarranted. Specifically, it protects any social media platform where users make comments in response to what the Bill describes as “provider content”. In this case, that means comments posted in response to articles published by the newspaper. This is materially no different from user exchanges of any other kind and should be covered just the same.

The Government have previously argued that there should be a distinction between newspaper comment sections and other platforms, in that other platforms allow for virality because posts that are liked and retweeted do better than the others. But this is exactly the same for many modern comment sections. Lots of these include functionality to upvote certain comments, which can then rise to the top of the comment section on that article.

There are estimated to be around 15 million people on Twitter in the UK—I am one of them—but more than twice that number read newspaper websites every month. These comment sections are social media platforms with the same power, reach and capacity to cause harm as the US giants. We should not treat them any differently on account of the fact that they are based out of Fleet Street rather than Silicon Valley.

There are some concerns that the Bill’s requirements would put an undue burden on small organisations running comment sections, so this amendment would apply only to organisations with an annual turnover in excess of £100 million. This would ensure that only the largest titles, which can surely afford it, are required to regulate their comment sections. Amendment 124 would close the comment section loophole, and I urge the Government to act on it.

It is a great shame that, due to the lateness of the hour, my noble friend Lady Hollins is unable to be here. She would strongly support Amendment 126 on several points but specifically wanted to talk about how the exemption creates double standards between how the public and news publishers are treated, and puts platforms and Ofcom in an impossible situation over whether newspapers meet vague criteria to access exemptions.

I also support Amendments 126 and 227, which would help protect the public from extremist and other dangerous websites by preventing them accessing the separate media exemption. In all these matters, we must not let overbroad exemptions and loopholes undermine what good work this Bill could do.