House of Lords Queen's Speech debate addresses Online Safety Bill

Today in parliament (18th May 2021) Baroness Kidron, 5Rights Chair, made the following contribution about the Online Safety Bill in the Queen’s Speech debate.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my interests, particularly as chair of 5Rights Foundation and deputy chair of the APPG on Digital Regulation and Responsibility. Like others, I welcome the long anticipated Online Safety Bill and the provisions it will make for children. The change in the Bill’s name from “online harms” to “online safety” reflects the journey the Bill has been on, and the widespread acceptance that we must stop arguing over what is and is not acceptable after children have suffered harm, and instead seek to tackle risks inherent in the technology they are offered and make it safe from the get-go.

Less welcome is the change of language from the promised “duty of care” to a list of “duties of care”. It is the expectation of parents, teachers and children up and down the country that the Bill will introduce a duty that, both philosophically and legally, requires the tech sector to think first before it puts its products and services in the hands of children. While specific duties can improve the safety, transparency and fairness of digital products, it is dangerous to set a path in which each special interest or expert group fights to include or omit every potential risk. Risks are interconnected and cumulative; they impact on different users in different ways; and they can expand and contract across different services and across time. We have been promised an end to the “Move fast and break things” culture of the sector, and the Bill must introduce a duty to care as a matter of principle, not a laundry list of pre-circumscribed duties.

As drafted, the Bill spends the bulk of its pages on rules that pertain to content. This undermines the stated ambition to tackle risk at a systemic level, as it leaves only cursory mention of the algorithms, functionalities and operating practices that drive user experience. No doubt we will revisit this, but before we lose ourselves down the rabbit hole of how to police content and who owns the truth, we must first ask whether companies are responsible for recommendations that they monetise. What is the legal status of a company’s published terms and community rules? What oversight does the regulator need to identify manipulative nudges, dark patterns or unfair practices? Or—my own personal favourite—if a company can confidently identify a 14 year-old child to target them with a Home Office awareness campaign on child abuse, should they simultaneously be able to recommend to the same 14 year-old self-harm content or extreme diets, or enable adults to direct message them with pornographic material? If the Bill does not take a systemic approach to curbing what have become industry norms, then children will continue to suffer the lack of what in every other industry is simply the price of doing business.

We have many months to scrutinise every line of the Bill’s 145 pages, but some things cannot wait. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, I believe that the Government must ask regulators to bring forward minimum standards and codes of practice on urgent matters such as age assurance, safety by design, child impact assessments and algorithmic oversight, with the stated intention that they will be absorbed into the Bill, just as they are planning for guidance for video-sharing platforms. We need this Bill badly, but it is cruel to make children wait years for protections they could have now.

There are some startling omissions, some unwelcome exceptions and some shifts in emphasis that we must contest, but ultimately the biggest work of Parliament will be to ensure the Bill’s enforceability. The current matrix of duties and responsibilities of the regulator are neither fully independent nor properly enforceable, and this must change. I understand that there are pressures from all sides, but the UK delivering systemic change on behalf of UK children that will, over time, become the new normal for children the world over is a great prize, and it is my sincere wish that that is the prize Her Majesty’s Government have in their sights.