Clause 20 - Duties about freedom of expression and privacy

Part of Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 13 December 2022.

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Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Tech, Gambling and the Digital Economy) 4:00, 13 December 2022

I will speak broadly to clause 20, as it is an extremely important clause, before making remarks about the group of Government amendments we have just voted on.

Clause 20 is designed to provide a set of balancing provisions that will require companies to have regard to freedom of expression and privacy when they implement their safety duties. However, as Labour has repeatedly argued, it is important that companies cannot use privacy and free expression as a basis to argue that they can comply with regulations in less substantive ways. That is a genuine fear here.

We all want to see a Bill in place that protects free speech, but that cannot come at the expense of safety online. The situation with regards to content that is harmful to adults has become even murkier with the Government’s attempts to water down the Bill and remove adult risk assessments entirely.

The Minister must acknowledge that there is a balance to be achieved. We all recognise that. The truth is—and this is something that his predecessor, or should I say his predecessor’s predecessor, touched on when we considered this clause in the previous Bill Committee—that at the moment platforms are extremely inconsistent in their approach to getting the balance right. Although Labour is broadly supportive of this clause and the group of amendments, we feel that now is an appropriate time to put on record our concerns over the important balance between safety, transparency and freedom of expression.

Labour has genuine concerns over the future of platforms’ commitment to retaining that balance, particularly if the behaviours following the recent takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk are anything to go by. Since Elon Musk took over ownership of the platform, he has repeatedly used Twitter polls, posted from his personal account, as metrics to determine public opinion on platform policy. The general amnesty policy and the reinstatement of Donald Trump both emerged from such polls.

According to former employees, those polls are not only inaccurate representations of the platform’s user base, but are actually

“designed to be spammed and gamed”.

The polls are magnets for bots and other inauthentic accounts. This approach and the reliance on polls have allowed Elon Musk to enact and dictate his platform’s policy on moderation and freedom of expression. Even if he is genuinely trusting the results of these polls and not gamifying them, they do not accurately represent the user base nor the best practices for confronting disinformation and harm online.

Elon Musk uses the results to claim that “the people have spoken”, but they have not. Research from leading anti-hate organisation the Anti-Defamation League shows that far-right extremists and neo-Nazis encouraged supporters to actively re-join Twitter to vote in these polls. The impacts of platforming neo-Nazis on Twitter do not need to be stated. Such users are explicitly trying to promote violent and hateful agendas, and they were banned initially for that exact reason. The bottom line is that those people were banned in line with Twitter’s terms of service at the time, and they should not be re-platformed just because of the findings of one Twitter poll.

These issues are at the very heart of Labour’s concerns in relation to the Bill—that the duties around freedom of expression and privacy will be different for those at the top of the platforms. We support the clause and the group of amendments, but I hope the Minister will be able to address those concerns in his remarks.