The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Latest Activity on the Online Safety Bill

Arietta Valmas from 5Rights outlines the political activity around the coalition's amendment package prior to the Conservative Party leadership contest and Parliamentary recess. 


5Rights Foundation is coordinating the activity of a broad coalition that has developed a strong package of amendments to the Online Safety Bill. The coalition has written to the Secretary of State urging the government to adopt all the amendments to fulfil its promise to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online, and give children the highest levels of protection.

The amendments have the following purposes:

  • Putting children’s needs at the Bill's heart and upholding children's rights to freedom of expression, participation and protection from abuse.
  • Ensuring all services likely to be accessed by children are subject to the child safety duties, with requirements for compliance set out in binding, enforceable codes of practice.
  • Providing the strongest possible incentives/obligations to detect and disrupt preventable online abuse.
  • Requiring services to have secure, privacy preserving and effective age assurance, so children can be given age-appropriate experiences.
  • Demanding meaningful transparency and accountability so that companies no longer put profit before children’s safety.

The full amendment package can be viewed on the 5Rights website.

The Online Safety Bill has been put on pause amid the political turmoil surrounding Johnson’s resignation. A new Prime Minister will be appointed on 5 September, at which time the fate of the Bill will become clearer. The delay to the Bill has dealt another blow to those pushing for online safety regulations, which were first proposed five years ago. Children cannot afford to wait any longer for the protections they so urgently need. We hope the Bill will return to the top of the legislative agenda this Autumn and that the government will incorporate the coalition’s package of amendments in its entirety.”

Here is a summary of the coalition’s advocacy, and key outcomes from the Committee and Report stages of the Bill that took place throughout May, June and July.

The Children’s Coalition’s Letter to the Secretary of State

On June 8th, the coalition wrote to DCMS Secretary of State Nadine Dorries to raise the Children’s Coalition’s package of amendments. On July 11th the coalition received a response from the Secretary of State to that letter. The response was disappointing, indicating that the majority of the coalition’s concerns would be dealt with in Ofcom’s Code of Practice such as age assurance, yet maintaining that these Codes need not be mandatory or have binding minimum standards to allow companies flexibility with compliance. The reply includes inconsistencies such as the presumption that the Bill reflects children’s rights whilst rejecting the need to make explicit reference to them. The government did concede that the highest risk services must release annual transparency reports which will include information on children’s safety. This is certainly a win for the coalition which has demanded the publishing of children’s risk assessments. While we have a long way to go on this front, this is a welcome amendment.

Committee Stage

The Public Bill Committee comprised eleven Conservative MPs including Caroline Ansell, Shaun Bailey, Steve Double, Kate Griffiths, Nick Fletcher, Richard Holden, Maria Miller, Damien Moore, Dean Russell, Jane Stevenson and Chris Philp, the former Minister responsible for the Bill. Leading the opposition was Labour’s Alex Davies Jones alongside Barbara Keeley, Kim Leadbeater, Dan Carden, Catherine McKinnell and Navendu Mishra. The Committee included two members of the SNP, John Nicolson and Kirsty Blackman. The opposition was well prepared and spoke on children’s online safety at great length. Line-by-line scrutiny sessions continued until the end of June but not a single amendment tabled by Labour or the SNP was voted through.

Leading the charge from the opposition benches, Alex Davies Jones MP (LAB) and Barbara Keeley MP (LAB) spoke of the need for greater attention to be paid to the business models and algorithms that create and amplify harm online. On Clause 31 (children's access assessments), Barbara Keeley spoke about the problematic language in the Bill which determines the types of services that must comply with child safety duties. This threshold is based on a “significant number of children” accessing a service, which may risk some smaller services falling through the cracks. Keeley stressed it would be better to align the child access test with the "likely to be accessed by children" threshold already used in existing regulation protecting children’s data, the Age Appropriate Design Code.

Questions of ‘future-proofing’ the Bill were raised by Alex Davies-Jones, who expressed concerns about the exemptions in schedule 1 and potential loopholes for virtual reality environments like the Metaverse. Davies-Jones also voiced concern about the speed of the Bill’s implementation, particularly the timing for Ofcom’s codes of practice.

From the Conservative membership, Maria Miller MP (CON) spoke about the importance of guidance, codes of practice and secondary legislation more generally, as elements that are critical to the functioning of the regime. Jane Stevenson MP (CON) raised the issue of privacy with the use of scanning technology in encrypted environments.

Regarding the scope of the Bill, Kirsty Blackman MP (SNP) highlighted the issue that a number of online games and app stores are out of scope, a point reflected in the Children’s Coalition package of amendments. Kirsty Blackman also raised the issue of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) and the need for the Bill to go further in order to tackle this growing problem. Discussions around user advocacy and individual complaints (and an ombudsman) received cross party support.

Heading into Report Stage, two Written Ministerial Statements were published on July 7th. The first outlined the changes the government will make to the Bill through a combination of tabled amendments at report stage and future amendments to be tabled when the Bill reaches the Lords. Crucially, this includes an amendment on publishing children’s risk assessments (one of the coalition’s amendments). The second WMS includes an indicative list of primary priority content to children (pornography, content promoting self harm with the exception of recovery self-harm content, content promoting eating disorders and legal suicide content.) This is content services will have a duty to prevent children from encountering. An indicative list of priority content to adults and children is also included.

Report Stage

The first day of Report Stage took place on 12 July. All the government amendments were passed. You can review the debate in its entirety here. Alex Davies Jones MP and Munira Wilson MP both mentioned issues from the children’s amendment package including safety by design, upholding children’s rights and breadcrumbing with an explicit mention of the children’s coalition from Munira Wilson.

Moving Forward

As the Leadership race continues, we are waiting to see what lies ahead for the Online Safety Bill. Regardless of the outcome, the Children’s Coalition will continue to mobilise to ensure this critical piece of legislation delivers for children.

 

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