Clause 15 - Duties to protect content of democratic importance

Part of Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 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 4:45 pm, 7th June 2022

I thank the shadow Minister for her comments and questions. I would like to pick up on a few points on the clauses. First, there was a question about what content of democratic importance and content of journalistic importance mean in practice. As with many concepts in the Bill, we will look to Ofcom to issue codes of practice specifying precisely how we might expect platforms to implement the various provisions in the Bill. That is set out in clause 37(10)(e) and (f), which appear at the top of page 37, for ease. Clauses 15 and 16 on content of democratic and journalistic importance are expressly referenced as areas where codes of practice will have to be published by Ofcom, which will do further work on and consult on that. It will not just publish it, but will go through a proper process.

The shadow Minister expressed some understandable concerns a moment ago about various extremely unpleasant people, such as members of the far right who might somehow seek to use the provisions in clauses 15 and 16 as a shield behind which to hide, to enable them to continue propagating hateful, vile content. I want to make it clear that the protections in the Bill are not absolute—it is not that if someone can demonstrate that what they are saying is of democratic importance, they can say whatever they like. That is not how the clauses are drafted.

I draw attention to subsection (2) of both clauses 15 and 16. At the end of the first block of text, just above paragraph (a), it says “taken into account”: the duty is to ensure that matters concerning the importance of freedom of expression relating to content of democratic importance are taken into account when making decisions. It is not an absolute prohibition on takedown or an absolute protection, but simply something that has to be taken into account.

If someone from the far right, as the shadow Minister described, was spewing out vile hatred, racism or antisemitism, and tried to use those clauses, the fact that they might be standing in an election might well be taken into account. However, in performing that balancing exercise, the social media platforms and Ofcom acting as enforcers—and the court if it ever got judicially reviewed—would weigh those things up and find that taking into account content of democratic importance would not be sufficient to outweigh considerations around vile racism, antisemitism or misogyny.