Julian Knight – 2022 Speech on the Online Safety Bill

The speech made by Julian Knight, the Chair of the Culture Select Committee, in the House of Commons on 5 December 2022.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), to his place. To say that he has been given a hospital pass in terms of this legislation is a slight understatement. It is very difficult to understand, and the ability he has shown at the Dispatch Box in grasping many of the major issues is to his credit. He really is a safe pair of hands and I thank him for that.

Looking at the list of amendments, I think it is a bit of a hotchpotch, yet we are going to deal only with certain amendments today and others are not in scope. That shows exactly where we are with this legislation. We have been in this stasis now for five years. I remember that we were dealing with the issue when I joined the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and it is almost three years since the general election when we said we would bring forward this world-leading legislation. We have to admit that is a failure of the political class in all respects, but we have to understand the problem and the realities facing my hon. Friend, other Ministers and the people from different Departments involved in drafting this legislation.

We are dealing with companies that are more powerful than the oil barons and railway barons of the 19th century. These companies are more important than many states. The total value of Alphabet, for instance, is more than the total GDP of the Netherlands, and that is probably a low estimate of Alphabet’s global reach and power. These companies are, in many respects, almost new nation states in their power and reach, and they have been brought about by individuals having an idea in their garage. They still have that culture of having power without the consequences that flow from it.

These companies have created wonderful things that enhance our lives in many respects through better communication and increased human knowledge, which we can barely begin to imagine, but they have done it with a skater boy approach—the idea that they are beyond the law. They had that enshrined in law in the United States, where they have effectively become nothing more than a megaphone or a noticeboard, and they have always relied on that. They are based or domiciled, in the main, in the United States, which is where they draw their legal power. They will always be in that position of power.

We talk about 10% fines and even business interruption to ensure these companies have skin in the game, but we have to realise these businesses are so gigantic and of such importance that they could simply ignore what we do in this place. Will we really block a major social media platform? The only time something like that has been done was when a major social media platform blocked a country, if I remember rightly. We have to understand where we are coming from in that respect.

This loose cannon, Elon Musk, is an enormously wealthy man, and he is quite strange, isn’t he? He is intrinsically imbued with the power of silicon valley and those new techno-masters of the universe. We are dealing with those realities, and this Bill is very imperfect.

Mr David Davis

My hon. Friend is giving a fascinating disquisition on this industry, but is not the implication that, in effect, these companies are modern buccaneer states and we need to do much more to legislate? I am normally a deregulator, but we need more than one Bill to do what we seek to do today.

Julian Knight

My right hon. Friend is correct. We spoke privately before this debate, and he said this is almost five Bills in one. There will be a patchwork of legislation, and there is a time limit. This is a carry-over Bill, and we have to get it on the statute book.

This Bill is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and I take the Opposition’s genuine concerns about legal but harmful material. The shadow Minister mentioned the tragic case of Molly Russell. I heard her father being interviewed on the “Today” programme, and he spoke about how at least three quarters of the content he had seen that had prompted that young person to take her life had been legal but harmful. We have to stand up, think and try our best to ensure there is a safer space for young people. This Bill does part of that work, but only part. The work will be done in the execution of the Bill, through the wording on age verification and age assurance.

Dame Maria Miller

Given the complexities of the Bill, and given the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s other responsibilities, will my hon. Friend join me in saying there should be a special Committee, potentially of both Houses, to keep this area under constant review? That review, as he says, is so badly needed.

Julian Knight

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question, which I have previously addressed. The problem is the precedent it would set. Any special Committee set up by a Bill would be appointed by the Whips, so we might as well forget about the Select Committee system. This is not a huge concern for the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, because the advent of any such special Committee would probably be beyond the next general election, and I am not thinking to that timeframe. I am concerned about the integrity of Parliament. The problem is that if we do that in this Bill, the next Government will come along and do it with another Bill and then another Bill. Before we know it, we will have a Select Committee system that is Whips-appointed and narrow in definition, and that cuts across something we all vote for.

There are means by which we can have legislative scrutiny—that is the point I am making in my speech. I would very much welcome a Committee being set up after a year, temporarily, to carry out post-legislative scrutiny. My Committee has a Sub-Committee on disinformation and fake news, which could also look at this Bill going forward. So I do not accept my right hon. Friend’s point, but I appreciate completely the concerns about our needing proper scrutiny in this area. We must also not forget that any changes to Ofcom’s parameters can be put in a statutory instrument, which can by prayed against by the Opposition and thus we would have the scrutiny of the whole House in debate, which is preferable to having a Whips-appointed Committee.

I have gone into quite a bit of my speech there, so I am grateful for that intervention in many respects. I am not going to touch on every aspect of this issue, but I urge right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House to think about the fact that although this is far from perfect legislation and it is a shame that we have not found a way to work through the legal but harmful material issue, we have to understand the parameters we are working in, in the real world, with these companies. We need to see that there is a patchwork of legislation, and the biggest way in which we can effectively let the social media companies know they have skin in the game in society—a liberal society that created them—is through competition legislation, across other countries and other jurisdictions. I am talking about our friends in the European Union and in the United States. We are working together closely now to come up with a suite of competition legislation. That is how we will be able to cover off some of this going forward. I will be supporting this Bill tonight and I urge everyone to do so, because, frankly, after five years I have had enough.