The Government’s draft of its Online Safety Bill leaves a lot to be desired, influential committee of MPs have warned.

The report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee warned that it has “urgent concerns” the draft legislation “neither adequately protects freedom of expression nor is clear and robust enough to tackle the various types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services”.

It comes after the government last month faced pressure to make major changes to the draft of its Online Safety Bill from a committee of MPs and peers. That report recommended a wide-range of proposals to amend the legislation.

Online safety bill

The UK’s online safety bill looks to mostly create a duty of care, obliging tech companies to take initiatives to remove illegal content, and to report it to authorities.

It also seeks to ramp up online protections for both adults and children, including stopping children from accessing pornography.

Another controversial part of the bill concerns end-to-end encryption, which governments and law enforcement have campaigned against for years.

The bill will see new rules being enforced by Ofcom, which would have the power to impose multi-million pound fines or bar companies from operating in the UK

Ofcom could, for example, will be able to levy unprecedented fines of up to £18m or 10 percent of global turnover.

DCMS report

But the DCMS report made clear it has “urgent concerns” over the draft legislation as it stands.

“The UK Government’s Draft Online Safety Bill is an ambitious, complex and contested piece of legislation,” said the report. “Through a series of interlocking duties and suite of enforcement and redress powers and mechanisms, it aims to make user-to-user and search service providers more accountable for the decisions they make when designing the platforms and the systems and processes that govern them.”

“We welcome the Government’s decision, as per our previous recommendation, to publish the Draft Bill in full and engage proactively with the various committees, including our own, who have conducted comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny,” the DCMS report said, before it went onto detail its concerns about the bill.

“However, there are several areas where existing pre-legislative scrutiny has missed an opportunity and must go further,” said the report. “We have urgent concerns that, as currently drafted, the Bill neither adequately protects freedom of expression nor is clear and robust enough to tackle the various types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services.”

“We have proposed several amendments to the definition and scope of harms covered by the regime that would bring the Bill into line with the UK’s obligations to freedom of expression under international human rights law,” the report stated.

“We also recommend that the Government proactively address types of content that are technically legal, such as insidious parts of child abuse sequences like breadcrumbing and types of online violence against and women and girls like tech-enabled ‘nudifying’ of women and deepfake pornography, by bringing them into scope either through primary legislation or as types of harmful content covered by the duties of care.”

Ofcom powers

The report also urged the government to clarify the powers it is giving to Ofcom.

“Moreover, we have found that current provisions that provide Ofcom with a suite of powers and users with redress are similarly unclear and impractical,” said the report. “We urge the Government to provide greater clarity within the Bill on how and when these powers should be used to ensure they are both practical and proportionate.”

“Finally, we are concerned that the Joint Committee’s recommendation to replace independent, elected, cross-party select committees with a joint committee created by Government would undermine, rather than enhance, parliamentary scrutiny,” it added.

Secretary of state for digital, Nadine Dorries, has previously suggested she is open to taking on board parliamentary feedback to the legislation.

But it remains to be seen how much notice the government actually takes of the committee’s recommendations.

And this is now the second round of negative feedback concerning the online safety bill, both of reports have urged major changes to the bill as it currently stands.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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