Peers urge Government to ‘change course’ on Online Safety Bill

·2-min read

The Online Safety Bill in its current form gives too much power to the Culture Secretary and could undermine Ofcom’s role as an independent regulator, a House of Lords committee has warned.

The Lords Communications and Digital Committee has recommended the Government remove or amend several clauses from the proposed internet safety laws that it says give the Culture Secretary the power to direct Ofcom to change the codes of practice used in enforcing the new online safety rules.

The Committee said these powers were “needlessly expansive” and warned they could be used to change codes to reflect the views of the secretary of state.

The Committee has written to Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan to express its concerns and has asked the Government to consider removing or amending clauses in the Bill on the issue, saying a proposed Government amendment setting out a list of grounds for issuing a direction was “cosmetic and inadequate”.

Its chair, Baroness Stowell, said the Government’s “nonchalant” approach to “undermining Ofcom’s independence” was “worrying”.

“We took evidence from ministers about this on 25 January and remain unconvinced that many of the wide-ranging powers are necessary or justified,” she said.

“The new online safety regime is novel and will require ongoing oversight. But this needs to happen without diminishing Ofcom’s independence from Government, which is key to maintaining public trust.

“It is one thing for Ofcom to receive strategic direction and some guidance from Government where needed – and we support this.

“It is quite another to jeopardise the regulator’s independence on multiple fronts. The best solution is to strengthen Parliament’s role, not the Government’s.”

The Online Safety Bill is currently making its way through Parliament and is due to be scrutinised in the House of Lords shortly.

The Committee’s letter also called for the reinstatement of requirements for social media platforms to carry out risk assessments of the possible impact of their content on adults.

Cabinet meeting
The Lords Communications and Digital Committee has written to Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan (Aaron Chown/PA)

These requirements were removed as part of the changes to the Bill which saw the provisions around “legal but harmful” content to adults also removed in an effort to protect freedom of speech.

But Baroness Stowell argues that risk assessments would provide the transparency needed to ensure platforms were balancing freedom of speech with the need to limit access to certain types of content.

“I am also troubled by the removal of requirements on social media platforms to assess the risk posed to adults using their services,” she said.

“Platforms must be required to provide transparency over how they will manage the tension between protecting free speech and limiting access to content.

“I urge ministers to take these concerns on board and amend the Bill accordingly as it makes its way through the Lords.”