Damian Collins – 2022 Statement on the Online Safety Bill

The statement made by Damian Collins, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 12 July 2022.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am honoured to have been appointed the Minister responsible for the Online Safety Bill. Having worked on these issues for a number of years, I am well aware of the urgency and importance of this legislation, in particular to protect children and tackle criminal activity online—that is why we are discussing this legislation.

Relative to the point of order from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I have the greatest respect for him and his standing in this House, but it feels like we have been discussing this Bill for at least five years. We have had a Green Paper and a White Paper. We had a pre-legislative scrutiny process, which I was honoured to be asked to chair. We have had reports from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and from other Select Committees and all-party parliamentary groups of this House. This legislation does not want for scrutiny.

We have also had a highly collaborative and iterative process in the discussion of the Bill. We have had 66 Government acceptances of recommendations made by the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill. We have had Government amendments in Committee. We are discussing Government amendments today and we have Government commitments to table amendments in the House of Lords. The Bill has received a huge amount of consultation. It is highly important legislation, and the victims of online crime, online fraud, bullying and harassment want to see us get the Bill into the Lords and on the statute book as quickly as possible.

Sir Jeremy Wright (Kenilworth and Southam) (Con)

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his position. He will understand that those of us who have followed the Bill in some detail since its inception had some nervousness as to who might be standing at that Dispatch Box today, but we could not be more relieved that it is him. May I pick up on his point about the point of order from our right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis)? Does he agree that an additional point to add to his list is that, unusually, this legislation has a remarkable amount of cross-party consensus behind its principles? That distinguishes it from some of the other legislation that perhaps we should not consider in these two weeks. I accept there is plenty of detail to be examined but, in principle, this Bill has a lot of support in this place.

Damian Collins

I completely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. That is why the Bill passed Second Reading without a Division and the Joint Committee produced a unanimous report. I am happy for Members to cast me in the role of poacher turned gamekeeper on the Bill, but looking around the House, there are plenty of gamekeepers turned poachers here today who will ensure we have a lively debate.

Mr Speaker

And the other way, as well.

Damian Collins

Exactly. The concept at the heart of this legislation is simple. Tech companies, like those in every other sector, must take appropriate responsibility for the consequences of their business decisions. As they continue to offer their users the latest innovations that enrich our lives, they must consider safety as well as profit. They must treat their users fairly and ensure that the internet remains a place for robust debate. The Bill has benefited from input and scrutiny from right across the House. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), who has worked tirelessly on the Bill, not least through 50 hours of Public Bill Committee, and the Bill is better for his input and work.

We have also listened to the work of other Members of the House, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright), the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who have all made important contributions to the discussion of the Bill.

We have also listened to those concerned about freedom of expression online. It is worth pausing on that, as there has been a lot of discussion about whether the Bill is censoring legal speech online and much understandable outrage from those who think it is. I asked the same questions when I chaired the Joint Committee on the Bill. This debate does not reflect the actual text of the Bill itself. The Bill does not require platforms to restrict legal speech—let us be absolutely clear about that. It does not give the Government, Ofcom or tech platforms the power to make something illegal online that is legal offline. In fact, if those concerned about the Bill studied it in detail, they would realise that the Bill protects freedom of speech. In particular, the Bill will temper the huge power over public discourse wielded by the big tech companies behind closed doors in California. They are unaccountable for the decisions they make on censoring free speech on a daily basis. Their decisions about what content is allowed will finally be subject to proper transparency requirements.

Dame Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)

My hon. Friend did not have the joy of being on the Bill Committee, as I did with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), who was the Minister at that point. The point that my hon. Friend has just made about free speech is so important for women and girls who are not able to go online because of the violent abuse that they receive, and that has to be taken into account by those who seek to criticise the Bill. We have to make sure that people who currently feel silenced do not feel silenced in future and can participate online in the way that they should be able to do. My hon. Friend is making an excellent point and I welcome him to his position.

Damian Collins

My right hon. Friend is entirely right on that point. The structure of the Bill is very simple. There is a legal priority of harms, and things that are illegal offline will be regulated online at the level of the criminal threshold. There are protections for freedom of speech and there is proper transparency about harmful content, which I will come on to address.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)

Does the Minister agree that, in moderating content, category 1 service providers such as Twitter should be bound by the duties under our domestic law not to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of a protected characteristic? Will he take a look at the amendments I have brought forward today on that point, which I had the opportunity of discussing with his predecessor, who I think was sympathetic?

Damian Collins

The hon. and learned Lady makes a very important point. The legislation sets regulatory thresholds at the criminal law level based on existing offences in law. Many of the points she made are covered by existing public law offences, particularly in regards to discriminating against people based on their protected characteristics. As she well knows, the internet is a reserved matter, so the legal threshold is set at where UK law stands, but where law may differ in Scotland, the police authorities in Scotland can still take action against individuals in breach of the law.

Joanna Cherry

The difficulty is that Twitter claims it is not covered by the Equality Act 2010. I have seen legal correspondence to that effect. I am not talking about the criminal law here. I am talking about Twitter’s duty not to discriminate against women, for example, or those who hold gender critical beliefs in its moderation of content. That is the purpose of my amendment today—it would ensure that Twitter and other service providers providing a service in the United Kingdom abide by our domestic law. It is not really a reserved or devolved matter.

Damian Collins

The hon. and learned Lady is right. There are priority offences where the companies, regardless of their terms of service, have to meet their obligations. If something is illegal offline, it is illegal online as well. There are priority areas where the company must proactively look for that. There are also non-priority areas where the company should take action against anything that is an offence in law and meets the criminal threshold online. The job of the regulator is to hold them to account for that. They also have to be transparent in their terms of service as category 1 companies. If they have clear policies against discrimination, which they on the whole all do, they will have to set out what they would do, and the regulator can hold them to account to make sure they do what they say. The regulator cannot make them take down speech that is legal or below a criminal threshold, but they can hold them to account publicly for the decisions they make.

One of the most important aspects of this Bill with regard to the category 1 companies is transparency. At the moment, the platforms make decisions about curating their content—who to take down, who to suppress, who to leave up—but those are their decisions. There is no external scrutiny of what they do or even whether they do what they say they will do. As a point of basic consumer protection law, if companies say in their terms of service that they will do something, they should be held to account for it. What is put on the label also needs to be in the tin and that is what the Bill will do for the internet.

I now want to talk about journalism and the role of the news media in the online world, which is a very important part of this Bill. The Government are committed to defending the invaluable role of a free media. Online safety legislation must protect the vital role of the press in providing people with reliable and accurate sources of information. Companies must therefore put in place protections for journalistic content. User-to-user services will not have to apply their safety duties in part 3 of the Bill to news publishers’ content shared on their services. News publishers’ content on their own sites will also not be in scope of regulation.

New clause 19 and associated amendments introduce a further requirement on category 1 services to notify a recognised news publisher and offer a right of appeal before removing or moderating its content or taking any action against its account. This new provision will reduce the risk of major online platforms taking over-zealous, arbitrary or accidental moderation decisions against news publisher content, which plays an invaluable role in UK democracy and society.

We recognise that there are cases where platforms must be able to remove content without having to provide an appeal, and the new clause has been drafted to ensure that platforms will not be required to provide an appeal before removing content that would give rise to civil or criminal liability to the service itself, or where it amounts to a relevant offence as defined by the Bill. This means that platforms can take down without an appeal content that would count as illegal content under the Bill.

Moreover, in response to some of the concerns raised, in particular by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam as well as by other Members, about the danger of creating an inadvertent loophole for bad actors, we have committed to further tightening the definition of “recognised news provider” in the House of Lords to ensure that sanctioned entities, such as RT, cannot benefit from these protections.

As the legislation comes into force, the Government are committed to ensuring that protections for journalism and news publisher content effectively safeguard users’ access to such content. We have therefore tabled amendments 167 and 168 to require category 1 companies to assess the impact of their safety duties on how news publisher and journalistic content are treated when hosted on the service. They must then demonstrate the steps they are taking to mitigate any impact.

In addition, a series of amendments, including new clause 20, will require Ofcom to produce a report assessing the impact of the Online Safety Bill on the availability and treatment of news publisher content and journalistic content on category 1 services. This will include consideration of the impact of new clause 19, and Ofcom must do this within two years of the relevant provisions being commenced.

The Bill already excludes comments sections on news publishers’ sites from the Bill’s safety duties. These comments are crucial for enabling reader engagement with the news and encouraging public debate, as well as for the sustainability of the news media. We have tabled a series of amendments to strengthen these protections, reflecting the Government’s commitment to media freedom. The amendments will create a higher bar for removing the protections in place for comments sections on recognised news publishers’ sites by ensuring that these can only be brought into the scope of regulation via primary legislation.

Government amendments 70 and 71 clarify the policy intention of the clause 13 adult safety duties to improve transparency about how providers treat harmful content, rather than incentivise its removal. The changes respond to concerns raised by stakeholders that the drafting did not make it sufficiently clear that providers could choose simply to allow any form of legal content, rather than promote, restrict or remove it, regardless of the harm to users.

This is a really important point that has sometimes been missed in the discussion on the Bill. There are very clear duties relating to illegal harm that companies must proactively identify and mitigate. The transparency requirements for other harmful content are very clear that companies must set out what their policies are. Enforcement action can be taken by the regulator for breach of their policies, but the primary objective is that companies make clear what their policies are. It is not a requirement for companies to remove legal speech if their policies do not allow that.

Dame Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab)

I welcome the Minister to his position, and it is wonderful to have somebody else who—like the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp)—knows what he is talking about. On this issue, which is pretty key, I think it would work if minimum standards were set on the risk assessments that platforms have to make to judge what is legal but harmful content, but at the moment such minimum standards are not in the Bill. Could the Minister comment on that? Otherwise, there is a danger that platforms will set a risk assessment that allows really vile harmful but legal content to carry on appearing on their platform.

Damian Collins

The right hon. Lady makes a very important point. There have to be minimum safety standards, and I think that was also reflected in the report of the Joint Committee, which I chaired. Those minimum legal standards are set where the criminal law is set for these priority legal offences. A company may have higher terms of service—it may operate at a higher level—in which case it will be judged on the operation of its terms of service. However, for priority illegal content, it cannot have a code of practice that is below the legal threshold, and it would be in breach of the provisions if it did. For priority illegal offences, the minimum threshold is set by the law.

Dame Margaret Hodge

I understand that in relation to illegal harmful content, but I am talking about legal but harmful content. I understand that the Joint Committee that the hon. Member chaired recommended that for legal but harmful content, there should be minimum standards against which the platforms would be judged. I may have missed it, but I cannot see that in the Bill.

Damian Collins

The Joint Committee’s recommendation was for a restructuring of the Bill, so that rather than having general duty of care responsibilities that were not defined, we defined those responsibilities based on existing areas of law. The core principle behind the Bill is to take things that are illegal offline, and to regulate such things online based on the legal threshold. That is what the Bill does.

In schedule 7, which did not exist in the draft phase, we have written into the Bill a long list of offences in law. I expect that, as this regime is created, the House will insert more regulations and laws into schedule 7 as priority offences in law. Even if an offence in law is not listed in the priority illegal harms schedule, it can still be a non-priority harm, meaning that even if a company does not have to look for evidence of that offence proactively, it still has to act if it is made aware of the offence. I think the law gives us a very wide range of offences, clearly defined against offences in law, where there are clearly understood legal thresholds.

The question is: what is to be done about other content that may be harmful but sits below the threshold? The Government have made it clear that we intend to bring forward amendments that set out clear priorities for companies on the reporting of such harmful content, where we expect the companies to set out what their policies are. That will include setting out clearly their policies on things such as online abuse and harassment, the circulation of real or manufactured intimate images, content promoting self-harm, content promoting eating disorders or legal suicide content—this is content relating to adults—so the companies will have to be transparent on that point.

Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con)

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and I look forward to supporting him in his role as he previously supported me in mine. I think he made an important point a minute ago about content that is legal but considered to be harmful. It has been widely misreported in the press that this Bill censors or prohibits such content. As the Minister said a moment ago, it does no such thing. There is no requirement on platforms to censor or remove content that is legal, and amendment 71 to clause 13 makes that expressly clear. Does he agree that reports suggesting that the Bill mandates censorship of legal content are completely inaccurate?

Damian Collins

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and as I said earlier, he is absolutely right. There is no requirement for platforms to take down legal speech, and they cannot be directed to do so. What we have is a transparency requirement to set out their policies, with particular regard to some of the offences I mentioned earlier, and a wide schedule of things that are offences in law that are enforced through the Bill itself. This is a very important distinction to make. I said to him on Second Reading that I thought the general term “legal but harmful” had added a lot of confusion to the way the Bill was perceived, because it created the impression that the removal of legal speech could be required by order of the regulator, and that is not the case.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)

I congratulate the Minister on his promotion and on his excellent chairmanship of the prelegislative scrutiny Committee, which I also served on. Is he satisfied with the Bill in relation to disinformation? It was concerning that there was only one clause on disinformation, and we know the impact—particularly the democratic impact—that that has on our society at large. Is he satisfied that the Bill will address that?

Damian Collins

It was a pleasure to serve alongside the hon. Lady on the Joint Committee. There are clear new offences relating to knowingly false information that will cause harm. As she will know, that was a Law Commission recommendation; it was not in the draft Bill but it is now in the Bill. The Government have also said that as a consequence of the new National Security Bill, which is going through Parliament, we will bring in a new priority offence relating to disinformation spread by hostile foreign states. As she knows, one of the most common areas for organised disinformation has been at state level. As a consequence of the new national security legislation, that will also be reflected in schedule 7 of this Bill, and that is a welcome change.

The Bill requires all services to take robust action to tackle the spread of illegal content and activity. Providers must proactively reduce the risk on their services of illegal activity and the sharing of illegal content, and they must identify and remove illegal content once it appears on their services. That is a proactive responsibility. We have tabled several interrelated amendments to reinforce the principle that companies must take a safety-by-design approach to managing the risk of illegal content and activity on their services. These amendments require platforms to assess the risk of their services being used to commit, or to facilitate the commission of, a priority offence and then to design and operate their services to mitigate that risk. This will ensure that companies put in place preventive measures to mitigate a broad spectrum of factors that enable illegal activity, rather than focusing solely on the removal of illegal content once it appears.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to his position. On harmful content, there are all too many appalling examples of animal abuse on the internet. What are the Government’s thoughts on how we can mitigate such harmful content, which is facilitating wildlife crime? Might similar online protections be provided for animals to the ones that clause 53 sets out for children?

Damian Collins

My hon. Friend raises an important point that deserves further consideration as the Bill progresses through its parliamentary stages. There is, of course, still a general presumption that any illegal activity that could also constitute illegal activity online—for example, promoting or sharing content that could incite people to commit violent acts—is within scope of the legislation. There are some priority illegal offences, which are set out in schedule 7, but the non-priority offences also apply if a company is made aware of content that is likely to be in breach of the law. I certainly think this is worth considering in that context.

In addition, the Bill makes it clear that platforms have duties to mitigate the risk of their service facilitating an offence, including where that offence may occur on another site, such as can occur in cross-platform child sexual exploitation and abuse—CSEA—offending, or even offline. This addresses concerns raised by a wide coalition of children’s charities that the Bill did not adequately tackle activities such as breadcrumbing—an issue my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), the Chair of the Select Committee, has raised in the House before—where CSEA offenders post content on one platform that leads to offences taking place on a different platform.

We have also tabled new clause 14 and a related series of amendments in order to provide greater clarity about how in-scope services should determine whether they have duties with regard to content on their services. The new regulatory framework requires service providers to put in place effective and proportionate systems and processes to improve user safety while upholding free expression and privacy online. The systems and processes that companies implement will be tailored to the specific risk profile of the service. However, in many cases the effectiveness of companies’ safety measures will depend on them making reasonable judgments about types of content. Therefore, it is essential to the effective functioning of the framework that there is clarity about how providers should approach these judgments. In particular, such clarity will safeguard against companies over-removing innocuous content if they wrongly assume mental elements are present, or under-removing content if they act only where all elements of an offence are established beyond reasonable doubt. The amendments make clear that companies must consider all reasonably available contextual information when determining whether content is illegal content, a fraudulent advert, content that is harmful to children, or content that is harmful to adults.

Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

I was on the Bill Committee and we discussed lots of things, but new clause 14 was not discussed: we did not have conversations about it, and external organisations have not been consulted on it. Is the Minister not concerned that this is a major change to the Bill and it has not been adequately consulted on?

Damian Collins

As I said earlier, in establishing the threshold for priority illegal offences, the current threshold of laws that exist offline should provide good guidance. I would expect that as the codes of practice are developed, we will be able to make clear what those offences are. On the racial hatred that the England footballers received after the European championship football final, people have been prosecuted for what they posted on Twitter and other social media platforms. We know what race hate looks like in that context, we know what the regulatory threshold should look at and we know the sort of content we are trying to regulate. I expect that, in the codes of practice, Ofcom can be very clear with companies about what we expect, where the thresholds are and where we expect them to take enforcement action.

Dame Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking his new position; we rarely have a new Minister so capable of hitting the ground running. He makes a crucial point about clearness and transparency for both users and the social media providers and other platforms, because it is important that we make sure they are 100% clear about what is expected of them and the penalties for not fulfilling their commitments. Does he agree that opaqueness—a veil of secrecy—has been one of the obstacles, and that a whole raft of content has been taken down for the wrong reasons while other content has been left to proliferate because of the lack of clarity?

Damian Collins

That is entirely right, and in closing I say that the Bill does what we have always asked for it to do: it gives absolute clarity that illegal things offline must be illegal online as well, and be regulated online. It establishes clear responsibilities and liabilities for the platforms to do that proactively. It enables a regulator to hold the platforms to account on their ability to tackle those priority illegal harms and provide transparency on other areas of harmful content. At present we simply do not know about the policy decisions that companies choose to make: we have no say in it; it is not transparent; we do not know whether they do it. The Bill will deliver in those important regards. If we are serious about tackling issues such as fraud and abuse online, and other criminal offences, we require a regulatory system to do that and proper legal accountability and liability for the companies. That is what the Bill and the further amendments deliver.