Barbara Keeley – 2022 Speech on the Online Safety Bill

The speech made by Barbara Keeley, the Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South, in the House of Commons on 12 July 2022.

I rise to speak to this small group of amendments on behalf of the Opposition. Despite everything that is going on at the moment, we must remember that this Bill has the potential to change lives for the better. It is an important piece of legislation, and we cannot miss the opportunity to get it right. I would like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) in welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) to his role. His work as Chair of the Joint Committee on this Bill was an important part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process, and I look forward to working in collaboration with him to ensure that this legislation does as it should in keeping us all safe online. I welcome the support of the former Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), on giving access to data to academic researchers and on looking at the changes needed to deal with the harm caused by the way in which algorithmic prompts work. It was a pity he was not persuaded by the amendments in Committee, but better late than never.

Earlier we debated new clause 14, which will reduce the amount of illegal content and fraudulent advertising that is identified and acted upon. In our view, this new clause undermines and weakens the safety mechanisms that members of the Joint Committee and the Public Bill Committee worked so hard to get right. I hope the Government will reconsider this part of the Bill when it goes through its stages in the House of Lords. Even without new clause 14, though, there are problems with the provisions around fraudulent advertising. Having said that, we were pleased that the Government conceded to our calls in Committee to ensure that major search engines and social media sites would be subject to the same duties to prevent fraudulent advertising from appearing on their sites.

However, there are other changes that we need to see if the Bill is to be successful in reducing the soaring rates of online fraud and changing the UK’s reputation as the

“scam capital of the world”,

according to Which? The Government voted against other amendments tabled in Committee by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd that would have tackled the reasons why people become subject to online fraud. Our amendments would have ensured that customers had better protection against scams and a clearer understanding of which search results were paid-for ads. In rejecting our amendments, the Government have missed an opportunity to tackle the many forms of scamming that people experience online.

One of those forms of scamming is in the world of online ticketing. In my role as shadow Minister for the Arts and Civil Society, I have worked on this issue and been informed by the expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse. I would like to thank her and those who have worked with the APPG on the anti-ticket touting campaign for their insights. Ticket reselling websites have a well-documented history of breaching consumer protection laws. These breaches include cases of fraud such as the sale of non-existent tickets. If our amendment had been passed, secondary ticketing websites such as Viagogo would have had to be members of a regulatory body responsible for secondary ticketing such as the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers, and they would have had to comply with established standards.

I have used ticket touting as an example, but the repercussions of this change go wider to include scamming by holiday websites, debt services and fraudulent passport renewal companies. Our amendments, together with amendments 205 to 210, which were tabled by the hon. Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), would improve protection against scams and close loopholes in the definitions of fraudulent advertising. I hope the Minister recognises how many more scams these clauses would prevent if the amendments were accepted.

Part 5 of the Bill includes provisions that relate to pornographic content, which we have already heard about in this debate. For too long, we have seen a proliferation of websites with illegal and harmful content rife with representations of sexual violence, incest, rape and exploitation, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for the examples she has just given us. We welcomed the important changes made to the Bill before the Committee stage, which meant that all pornographic content, not just user-generated content, would now be included within the duties in part 5.

Other Members have tabled important amendments to this part of the Bill. New clause 33 and new schedule 1, tabled by the hon. Members for Ochil and South Perthshire and for Aberdeen North, will ensure parity between online and offline content standards for pornography. New clause 33 is important in specifying that content that fails to obtain an R18 certificate has to be removed, just as happens in the offline world under the Video Recordings Act 1984. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North tabled amendment 33 and new clause 7, which place new duties on user-generated commercial pornography sites to verify the age and obtain consent of people featured in pornographic content, and to remove content should that consent be withdrawn. These are safeguards that should have been put in place by pornography platforms from the very start.

I would like to raise our concern about how quickly these duties can be brought into force. Clause 196 lays out that the only clauses in part 5 to be enacted once the Bill receives Royal Assent will be those covering the definitions—clauses 66 and 67(4)—and not those covering the duties. Children cannot wait another three years for protections from harm, having been promised this five years ago under part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017, which was never implemented. I hope the Minister appreciates the need for speed in regulating this particularly high harm part of the internet.

Part 11 clarifies companies’ liability and outlines the type of information offences contained in the Bill. It is important that liability is at the heart of discussions about the practical applications of the Bill, because we know that big internet companies have got away with doing nothing for far too long. However, the current focus on information offences means that criminal liability for repeated and systematic failures resulting in serious harm to users remains a crucial omission from the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd was vocal in making the point, but it needs to be made again, that we are very concerned about the volume of last-minute amendments tabled by the Government, and particularly their last-ditch attempt at power grabbing through amendment 144. The Secretary of State should not have the ability to decide what constitutes a priority offence without appropriate scrutiny, and our amendments would bring appropriate parliamentary oversight.

Amendment 31, in my name and in the name of my hon. Friend, would require that any changes to clauses 53 or 54, on harmful content, are debated on the Floor of the House rather than in a Delegated Legislation Committee. Without this change, the Secretary of State of the day will have the power to make decisions about priority content quietly through secondary legislation, which could have real-life consequences. Any changes to priority content are worthy of proper debate. If the Minister is serious about proper scrutiny of the online safety regime, he should carefully consider amendment 31. I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

Finally, part 12 includes clarifications and definitions. The hon. Members for Ochil and South Perthshire and for Aberdeen North tabled amendment 158, which would expand the definition of content in the Bill. This is an important future-proofing measure.

As I mentioned, we are concerned about the delays to the implementation of certain duties set out in part 12. We are now in a situation in which many children who need protection will no longer even be children by the time this legislation and its protections come into effect. Current uncertainty about the running of Government will compound the concerns of many charities and children’s advocacy groups. I hope the Minister will agree that we cannot risk further delays.

At its core, the Online Safety Bill should be about reducing harm, and we are all aligned on that aim. I am disappointed that the Government have reversed some of the effectiveness of the scrutiny in Committee by now amending the Bill to such a degree. I hope the Minister considers our amendments in the collaborative spirit in which they are intended, and recognises their potential to make this Bill stronger and more effective for all.