Clause 15 - Duties to protect content of democratic importance

Part of Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 4:30 pm, 7th June 2022

I have listened very carefully to both the hon. Member for Batley and Spen and the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. I agree with both of them that abuse and illegal activity directed at anyone, including people running for elected office, is unacceptable. I endorse and echo the comments they made in their very powerful and moving speeches.

In relation to the technicality of these amendments, what they are asking for is in the Bill already but in different places. This clause is about protecting content of “democratic importance” and concerns stopping online social media firms deleting content through over-zealous takedown. What the hon. Members are talking about is different. They are talking about abuse and illegal activities, such as rape threats, that people get on social media, particularly female MPs, as they both pointed out. I can point to two other places in the Bill where what they are asking for is delivered.

First, there are the duties around illegal content that we debated this morning. If there is content online that is illegal—some of the stuff that the shadow Minister referred to earlier sounds as if it would meet that threshold—then in the Bill there is a duty on social media firms to remove that content and to proactively prevent it if it is on the priority list. The route to prosecution will exist in future, as it does now, and the user-verification measures, if a user is verified, make it more likely for the police to identify the person responsible. In the context of identifying people carrying out abuse, I know the Home Office is looking at the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 as a separate piece of work that speaks to that issue.

So illegal content is dealt with in the illegal content provisions in the Bill, but later we will come to clause 150, which updates the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and creates a new harmful communications offence. Some of the communications that have been described may not count as a criminal offence under other parts of criminal law, but if they meet the test of harmful communication in clause 150, they will be criminalised and will therefore have to be taken down, and prosecution will be possible. In meeting the very reasonable requests that the hon. Members for Batley and Spen and for Aberdeen North have made, I would point to those two parts of the Bill.