Clause 54 - “Content that is harmful to children” etc

Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 14th June 2022.

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Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:45 pm, 14th June 2022

I beg to move amendment 83, in clause 54, page 50, line 39, at end insert—

“(2A) Priority content designated under subsection (2) must include content that contains health-related misinformation and disinformation, where such content is harmful to adults.”

This amendment would amend Clause 54 so that the Secretary of State’s designation of “priority content that is harmful to adults” must include a description of harmful health related misinformation or disinformation (as well as other priority content that might be designated in regulations by the Secretary of State).

The Bill requires category 1 service providers to set out how they will tackle harmful content on their platforms. In order for this to work, certain legal but harmful content must be designated in secondary legislation as

“priority content that is harmful to adults.”

As yet, however, it is not known what will be designated as priority content or when. There have been indications from Government that health-related misinformation and disinformation will likely be included, but there is no certainty. The amendment would ensure that harmful health-related misinformation and disinformation would be designated as priority content that is harmful to adults.

Health-related misinformation and disinformation undermine public health, as we know. For example, pregnant women have received mixed messages about the safety of covid vaccinations, causing widespread confusion, fear and inaction. In October 2021, one in five of the most critically ill covid patients were unvaccinated pregnant women. It should also be stressed that health misinformation and disinformation are not limited to covid or vaccine content. They also extend to, for example, areas as broad as cancer treatment or sexual health misinformation—anything that has the potential to cause physical or psychological harm to adults and to children.

With a third of internet users unaware of the potential for inaccurate or biased information online, it is vital that this amendment on health-related misinformation and disinformation is inserted into the Bill during Committee stage. It would give Parliament the time to scrutinise what content is in scope and ensure that regulation is in place to promote proportionate and effective responses. We must make it incumbent on platforms to be proactive in reducing that pernicious form of disinformation, designed only to hurt and to harm. As we have seen from the pandemic, the consequences can be grave if the false information is believed, as, sadly, it so often is.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:00 pm, 14th June 2022

Again, Labour supports moves to ensure that there is some clarity about specific content that is deemed to be harmful to adults, but of course the Opposition have concerns about the overall aim of defining harm.

The Government’s chosen approach to regulating the online space has left too much up to secondary legislation. We are also concerned that health misinformation and disinformation—a key harm, as we have all learned from the coronavirus pandemic—is missing from the Bill. That is why we too support amendment 83. The impact of health misinformation and disinformation is very real. Estimates suggest that the number of social media accounts posting misinformation about vaccines, and the number of users following those accounts, increased during the pandemic. Research by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, published in November 2020, suggested that the number of followers of the largest anti-vaccination social media accounts had increased by 25% since 2019. At the height of the pandemic, it was also estimated that there were 5.4 million UK-based followers of anti-vaccine Twitter accounts.

Interestingly, an Ofcom survey of around 200 respondents carried out between 12 and 14 March 2021 found that 28% of respondents had come across information about covid-19 that could be considered false or misleading. Of those who had encountered such information, respondents from minority ethnic backgrounds were twice as likely to say that the claim made to them made them think twice about the issue compared with white respondents. The survey found that of those people who were getting news and information about the coronavirus within the preceding week, 15% of respondents had come across claims that the coronavirus vaccines would alter human DNA; 18% had encountered claims that the coronavirus vaccines were a cover for the implant of trackable microchips, and 10% had encountered claims that the vaccines contained animal products.

Public health authorities, the UK Government, social media companies and other organisations all attempted to address the spread of vaccine misinformation through various strategies, including moderation of vaccine misinformation on social media platforms, ensuring the public had access to accurate and reliable information and providing education and guidance to people on how to address misinformation when they came across it.

Although studies do not show strong links between susceptibility to misinformation and ethnicity in the UK, some practitioners and other groups have raised concerns about the spread and impact of covid-19 vaccine misinformation among certain minority ethnic groups. Those concerns stem from research that shows historically lower levels of vaccine confidence and uptake among those groups. Some recent evidence from the UK’s vaccine roll-out suggests that that trend has continued for the covid-19 vaccine.

Data from the OpenSAFELY platform, which includes data from 40% of GP practices in England, covering more than 24 million patients, found that up to 7 April 2021, 96% of white people aged over 60 had received a vaccination compared with only 77% of people from a Pakistani background, 76% from a Chinese background and 69% of black people within the same age group. A 2021 survey of more than 172,000 adults in England on attitudes to the vaccine also found that confidence in covid-19 vaccines was highest in those of white ethnicity, with some 92.6% saying that they had accepted or would accept the vaccine. The lowest confidence was found in those of black ethnicity, at 72.5%. Some of the initiatives to tackle vaccine misinformation and encourage vaccine take-up were aimed at specific minority ethnic groups, and experts have emphasised the importance of ensuring that factual information about covid-19 vaccines is available in multiple different languages.

Social media companies have taken various steps to tackle misinformation on their platforms during the covid-19 pandemic, including removing or demoting misinformation, directing users to information from official sources and banning certain adverts. So, they can do it when they want to—they just need to be compelled to do it by a Bill. However, we need to go further. Some of the broad approaches to content moderation that digital platforms have taken to address misinformation during the pandemic are discussed in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s previous rapid response on covid-19 and misinformation.

More recently, some social media companies have taken specific action to counter vaccine misinformation. In February 2021, as part of its wider policies on coronavirus misinformation, Facebook announced that it would expand its efforts to remove false information about covid-19 vaccines, and other vaccines more broadly. The company said it would label posts that discuss covid-19 vaccines with additional information from the World Health Organisation. It also said it would signpost its users to information on where and when they could get vaccinated. Facebook is now applying similar measures to Instagram.

In March 2021, Twitter began applying labels to tweets that could contain misinformation about covid-19 vaccines. It also introduced a strike policy, under which users that violate its covid-19 misinformation policy five or more times would have their account permanently suspended.

YouTube announced a specific ban on covid-19 anti-vaccination videos in October 2020. It committed to removing any videos that contradict official information about the vaccine from the World Health Organisation. In March, the company said it had removed more than 30,000 misleading videos about the covid-19 vaccine since the ban was introduced. However, as with most issues, until the legislation changes, service providers will not feel truly compelled to do the right thing, which is why we must legislate and push forward with amendment 83.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I would like to speak to the clause rather than the amendment, Sir Roger. Is now the right time to do so, or are we only allowed to speak to the amendment?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

It can be, in the sense that I am minded not to have a clause stand part debate.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

Thank you, Sir Roger. I think that the Minister would agree that this is probably one of the most contentious parts of the Bill. It concerns legal but harmful content, which is causing an awful lot of concern out there. The clause says that the Secretary of State may in regulations define as

“priority content that is harmful to adults” content that he or she considers to present

“a material risk of significant harm to an appreciable number of adults”.

We have discussed this issue in other places before, but I am deeply concerned about freedom of speech and people being able to say what they think. What is harmful to me may not be harmful to any other colleagues in this place. We would be leaving it to the Secretary of State to make that decision. I would like to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am very happy to reply to the various queries that have been made. I will start with the points on vaccine disinformation raised by the hon. Members for Ochil and South Perthshire and for Pontypridd. The Government strongly agree with the points they made about the damaging effects of vaccine misinformation and the fact that many of our fellow citizens have probably died as a result of being misled into refusing the vaccine when it is, of course, perfectly safe. We strongly share the concerns they have articulated.

Over the past two years, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has worked together with other Departments to develop a strong operational response to this issue. We have established a counter-disinformation unit within DCMS whose remit is to identify misinformation and work with social media firms to get it taken down. The principal focus of that unit during the pandemic was, of course, covid. In the past three months, it has focused more on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, for obvious reasons.

In some cases, Ministers have engaged directly with social media firms to encourage them to remove content that is clearly inappropriate. For example, in the Russia-Ukraine context, I have had conversations with social media companies that have left up clearly flagrant Russian disinformation. This is, therefore, an area that the Government are concerned about and have been acting on operationally already.

Obviously, we agree with the intention behind the amendment. However, the way to handle it is not to randomly drop an item into the Bill and leave the rest to a statutory instrument. Important and worthy though it may be to deal with disinformation, and specifically harmful health-related disinformation, there are plenty of other important things that one might add that are legal but harmful to adults, so we will not accept the amendment. Instead, we will proceed as planned by designating the list via a statutory instrument. I know that a number of Members of Parliament, probably including members of this Committee, would find it helpful to see a draft list of what those items might be, not least to get assurance that health-related misinformation and disinformation is on that list. That is something that we are considering very carefully, and more news might be forthcoming as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

My hon. Friend has talked about the Department’s counter-disinformation unit. Do the Government anticipate that that function to continue, or will they expect Ofcom to do it?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The work of the counter-disinformation unit is valuable. We look at these things on a spending review by spending review basis, and as far as I am aware we intend to continue with the counter-disinformation unit over the current spending review period. Clearly, I cannot commit future Ministers in perpetuity, but my personal view—if I am allowed to express it—is that that unit performs a useful function and could valuably be continued into the future. I think it is useful for the Government, as well as Ofcom, to directly have eyes on this issue, but I cannot speak for future Ministers. I can only give my right hon. Friend my own view.

I hope that I have set out my approach. We have heard the calls to publish the list so that parliamentarians can scrutinise it, and we also heard them on Second Reading.

I will now turn to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley regarding freedom of expression. Those on one side of the debate are asking us to go further and to be clearer, while those on the other side have concerns about freedom of expression. As I have said, I honestly do not think that these legal but harmful provisions infringe on freedom of speech, for three reasons. First, even when the Secretary of State decides to designate content and Parliament approves of that decision through the affirmative procedure—Parliament gets to approve, so the Secretary of State is not acting alone—that content is not being banned. The Bill does not say that content designated as legal but harmful should immediately be struck from every corner of the internet. It simply says that category 1 companies—the big ones—have to do a proper risk assessment of that content and think about it properly.

Secondly, those companies have to have a policy to deal with that content, but that policy is up to them. They could have a policy that says, “It is absolutely fine.” Let us say that health disinformation is on the list, as one would expect it to be. A particular social media firm could have a policy that says, “We have considered this. We know it is risky, but we are going to let it happen anyway.” Some people might say that that is a weakness in the Bill, while others might say that it protects freedom of expression. It depends on one’s point of view, but that is how it works. It is for the company to choose and set out its policy, and the Bill requires it to enforce it consistently. I do not think that the requirements I have laid out amount to censorship or an unreasonable repression of free speech, because the platforms can still set their own terms and conditions.

There is also the general duty to have regard to free speech, which is introduced in clause 19(2). At the moment, no such duty exists. One might argue that the duty could be stronger, as my hon. Friend suggested previously, but it is unarguable that, for the first time ever, there is a duty on the platforms to have regard to free speech.

Thirdly, and finally, let us think about how big platforms such as Facebook and Twitter confront such issues. The truth is that they behave in an arbitrary manner; they are not consistent in how they apply their own terms and conditions. They sometimes apply biases—a matter on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commented recently. No requirement is placed on them to be consistent or to have regard to freedom of speech. So they do things such as cancel Donald Trump—people have their own views on that—while allowing Vladimir Putin’s propaganda to be spread. That is obviously inconsistent. They have taken down a video of my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope speaking in the House of Commons Chamber. That would be difficult once the Bill is passed because clause 15 introduces protection for content of democratic importance. So I do not think that the legal but harmful duties infringe free speech. To the contrary, once the Bill is passed, as I hope it will be, it will improve freedom of speech on the internet. It will not make it perfect, and I do not pretend that it will, but it will make some modest improvements.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 3:15 pm, 14th June 2022

The argument has been made that the social media companies are doing this anyway, but two wrongs don’t make a right. We need to stop them doing it. I understand what we are trying to do here. We can see straight away that the Opposition want to be tighter on this. At a later date, if the Bill goes through as it is, freedom of speech will be gradually suppressed, and I am really concerned about that. My hon. Friend said that it would come back to Parliament, which I am pleased about. Are the priorities going to be written into the Bill? Will we be able to vote on them? If the scope is extended at any point in time, will we be able to vote on that, or will the Secretary of State just say, “We can’t have that so we’re just going to ban it”?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I will answer the questions in reverse order. The list of harms will not be in the Bill. The amendment seeks to put one of the harms in the Bill but not the others. So no, it will not be in the Bill. The harms—either the initial list or any addition to or subtraction from the list—will be listed in an affirmative statutory instrument, which means that the House will be able to look at it and, if it wants, to vote on it. So Parliament will get a chance to look at the initial list, when it is published in an SI. If anything is to be added in one, two or three years’ time, the same will apply.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

So will we be able to vote on any extension of the scope of the Bill at any time? Will that go out to public consultation as well?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Yes. There is an obligation on the Secretary of State to consult—[Interruption.] Did I hear someone laugh?—before proposing a statutory instrument to add things. There is a consultation first and then, if extra things are going to be added—in my hon. Friend’s language, if the scope is increased—that would be votable by Parliament because it is an affirmative SI. So the answer is yes to both questions. Yes there will be consultation in advance, and yes, if this Government or a future Government wanted to add anything, Parliament could vote on it if it wanted to because it will be an affirmative SI. That is a really important point.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

In a moment; I want to answer the other point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley first. He said that two wrongs don’t make a right. I am not defending the fact that social media firms act in a manner that is arbitrary and censorious at the moment. I am not saying that it is okay for them to carry on. The point that I was making was a different one. I was saying that they act censoriously and arbitrarily at times at the moment. The Bill will diminish their ability to do that in a couple of ways. First, for the legal but harmful stuff, which he is worried about, they will have a duty to act consistently. If they do not, Ofcom will be able to enforce against them. So their liberty to behave arbitrarily, for this category of content at least, will be circumscribed. They will now have to be consistent. For other content that is outside the scope of this clause —which I guess therefore does not worry my hon. Friend—they can still be arbitrary, but for this they have got to be consistent.

There is also the duty to have regard to freedom of expression, and there is a protection of democratic and journalistic importance in clauses 15 and 16. Although those clauses are not perfect and some people say they should be stronger, they are at least better than what we have now. When I say that this is good for freedom of speech, I mean that nothing here infringes on freedom of speech, and to the extent that it moves one way or the other, it moves us somewhat in the direction of protecting free speech more than is the case at the moment, for the reasons I have set out. I will be happy to debate the issue in more detail either in this Committee or outside, if that is helpful and to avoid trying the patience of colleagues.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. Before we go any further, I know it is tempting to turn around and talk to Back Benchers, but that makes life difficult for Hansard because you tend to miss the microphone. It is also rather discourteous to the Chair, so in future I ask the Minister to please address the Chair. I call the shadow Minister.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for giving way; I think that is what he was doing as he sat down.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Just for clarity, the hon. Member for Don Valley and the Minister have said that Labour Members are seeking to curtail or tighten freedom of expression and freedom of speech, but that is not the case. We fundamentally support free speech, as we always have been. The Bill addresses systems and processes, and that is what it should do—the Minister, the Labour party and I are in full alignment on that. We do not think that the Bill should restrict freedom of speech. I would just like to put that on the record.

We also share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Don Valley about the Secretary of State’s potential powers, the limited scope and the extra scrutiny that Parliament might have to undertake on priority harms, so I hope he will support some of our later amendments.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for confirming her support for free speech. Perhaps I could take this opportunity to apologise to you, Sir Roger, and to Hansard for turning round. I will try to behave better in future.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I find myself not entirely reassured, so I think we should press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 27 Online Safety Bill — Clause 54 - “Content that is harmful to children” etc

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

As I have indicated already, I do not propose that we have a clause stand part debate. It has been exhaustively debated, if I may say so.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.