February 6, 2023
The Committee has written to Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, to recommend changes to key clauses of the Online Safety Bill, warning that the current version risks undermining the independence of the regulator, Ofcom.
In its letter, the Committee says that there was no justification for giving the Government wide-ranging powers to “direct” Ofcom to change its Codes of Practice to reflect the views of the Secretary of State. The letter highlights warnings that the change would see the UK depart from “the cornerstone of media regulation in western Europe, that there is an independent regulator and that the executive does not interfere”.
It also recommends reinstating a requirement for social media platforms to carry out risk assessments of the possible impact of their content on adults, similar to those which will be undertaken in relation to child users of services.
The Committee recommends:
- removing Clause 39(1)(a) of the Online Safety Bill, which gives the Culture Secretary powers to direct Ofcom on the development of its Codes of Practice; the letter warns that this would provide “needlessly expansive powers to undermine Ofcom’s independence by interfering with the actual implementation of the online safety regime”; the letter dismisses a proposed Government amendment, which sets out a list of grounds for issuing a direction, as “cosmetic and inadequate”;
- amending provisions in Clause 39, which would allow the Culture Secretary repeatedly to demand modification to draft Codes of Practice, in a way which could result in “lengthy or infinite delay” without Parliamentary oversight; the committee says that it was “troubling” that the measure could potentially mire Ofcom in an indefinite private process of “ping-pong” with ministers before Codes are laid before Parliament;
- the deletion of Clause 157(1)(a) of the Bill, which gives the Culture Secretary powers to issue guidance to Ofcom on the exercise of its functions, to which the regulator must have regard; the Committee says that the proposed powers are “unnecessary and unconstrained” and could amount to needless intrusion into Ofcom’s day-to-day work; and
- the reinstatement of requirements for social media platforms to carry out risk assessments for services for adults to address concerns about online safety, transparency and freedom of expression; the Committee acknowledges the Government’s objectives in removing “legal but harmful to adults” provisions from the Bill, but says that maintaining adult risk assessments would support those objectives by requiring platforms to be transparent about how they manage the tension between protecting free speech and limiting access to content through user empowerment tools.
The letter also restates the Committee’s recommendation, set out in its 2021 report “Digital Regulation: Joined-Up and Accountable”, for the creation of a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament to scrutinise digital regulation. To read the Committee’s news release in full and for a link to the letter, click here.