GPD has provided evidence on the UK government’s Draft Online Safety Bill to a joint parliamentary committee scrutinising the proposals.
In our evidence, we recognise the legitimate desire of the UK government to tackle different forms of illegal and harmful online content. Some of the proposals put forward in the Draft Bill are sensible and welcome, particularly those that strengthen users’ rights to appeal content moderation decisions by online platforms and which would require greater transparency over decisionmaking. However, many significant aspects of the proposals, if taken forward in their current form, pose risks to individuals’ right to freedom of expression and privacy online and could be inconsistent with the UK’s international human rights obligations.
In our response, we set out these concerns and make a series of recommendations as to how the proposal could be revised to mitigate these risks.
Some of our recommendations to the committee include:
- Removing provisions which would require online services to make determinations as to the legality of pieces of content;
- Requiring online services to remove pieces of content “swiftly” only where a determination by a court that that particular piece of content is illegal has taken place;
- Removing all provisions relating to content which is lawful, even if harmful, and, if necessary, introducing substantive prohibitions on forms of harmful speech through clear criminal or civil laws;
- Clarifying the definition of content which is “harmful to children”, and ensuring that measures taken to protect children from harm do not undermine children’s right to freedom of expression;
- Revising provisions which would force online services either to require age verification for users to access the website or to provide only a child-friendly version of the service;
- Ensuring that the prohibition on general monitoring of online content from the EU’s E-Commerce Directive is maintained;
- Ensuring that private and encrypted communications are either entirely out of scope, or that there is a clear and explicit differentiation in requirements for such communications to ensure that services are free to continue to use privacy enhancing technologies, such as end-to-end encryption;
- Removing provisions which could require online services to use “technology” to identify illegal content on public and private parts of the service;
- Strengthening the duties that online services have to respect the rights to freedom of expression and privacy so that they are equivalent to all other duties; and
- Removing provisions which undermine the independence of the regulatory authority, OfCom, by giving the government the power to direct its day-to-day work.
The committee will publish its report on the Draft Bill by 10 December 2021. At that point, the government will consider the report, and its recommendations, and a revised version of the Bill is expected to be presented to Parliament in the first half of 2022. We’ll be following the Draft Bill’s progress closely—sign up to our monthly Digest for regular updates and analysis.