The UK government has denied a fresh parliamentary delay to the Online Safety Bill will delay the legislation’s passage.
The legislation is a core plank of the government’s 2019 manifesto promise to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online, introducing a regime ministers want to will drive a new era of accountability over the content that online platforms make available.
PoliticsHome spotted the change to the House of Commons schedule last night, reporting that the bill had been dropped from the Commons business for the second time in four months — despite a recent pledge by secretary of state for digital, Michelle Donelan, that it would return in the autumn.
The earlier ‘pause’ in the bill’s progress followed the ousting of ex-(ex)prime minister Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader over the summer which was followed by a lengthy leadership contest. Prime minister Liz Truss, who prevailed in the contest to replace Johnson as PM (but is now also an ex-PM), quickly put the brakes on the draft legislation over concerns about its impact on freedom of speech — the area that’s attracted the most controversy for the government.
Then, last month, Donelan confirmed provisions in the bill dealing with ‘legal but harmful speech would be changed.
A source in the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told TechCrunch that the latest delay to the bill’s parliamentary timetable is to allow time for MPs to read these new amendments — which they also confirmed are yet to be laid.
But they suggested the delay will not affect the passage of the bill, saying it will progress within the next few weeks.
They added that the legislation remains a top priority for the government.
A DCMS spokesperson also provided this statement in response to questions about the fresh delay and incoming amendments:
“Protecting children and stamping out illegal activity online is a top priority for the government and we will bring the Online Safety Bill back to Parliament as soon as possible.”
The government is now being led by another new prime minister — Rishi Sunak — who took over from Truss after she resigned earlier this month, following the market’s disastrous reception to her economic reforms.
The change of PM may not mean major differences in policy approach in the arena of online regulation as Sunak has expressed similar concerns about the Online Safety Bill’s impact on free speech — also seemingly centered on clauses pertaining to restrictions on the ‘legal but harmful’ speech of adults.
In August, The Telegraph reported a spokesman for Sunak (who was then just a leadership candidate) saying: “Rishi has spoken passionately as a dad about his desire to protect children online from content no parent would want their children to see – from violence, self harm and suicide to pornography.
“As Prime Minister he would urgently legislate to protect children. His concern with the bill as drafted is that it censors free speech amongst adults which he does not support. Rishi believes the Government has a duty to protect children and crack down on illegal behaviour, but should not infringe on legal and free speech.”
However, it remains to be seen how exactly the bill will be amended under Sunak’s watch.
Delays as amendments are considered and introduced could still threaten the bill’s passage if it ends up running out of parliamentary time to go through all the required stages of scrutiny.
Parliamentary sessions typically run from spring to spring. While there are only around two years left before Sunak will have to call a general election. So the clock is ticking.
The Online Safety Bill has already been years in the making, swelling in scope and ambition via a grab-bag of add-ons and late stage additions — from bringing scam ads into the regulation to measures aimed at tackling anonymous trolling, to name two of many.
Critics like the digital rights group the ORG argue the bill is hopelessly cluttered, fuzzily drafted and legally incoherent — warning it will usher in a chilling regime of speech policing by private companies and the tone-deaf automated algorithms they will be forced to deploy to shrink their legal risk.
There are also concerns about how the legislation might affect end-to-end encryption if secure messaging platforms are also forced to monitor content — with the potential for it to lead to the adoption of controversial technologies like client-side scanning.
While the administrative burden and costs of compliance will undoubtedly saddle scores of digital businesses with lots of headaches.
Despite having no shortage of critics, the bill has plenty of supporters too, though — including the opposition Labour party, which offered to work with the government to get the bill passed.
Children’s safety campaigners and charities have also been loudly urging lawmakers to get on and pass legislation to protect kids online.
The recent inquest into the suicide of British schoolgirl, Molly Russell — who was found to have binge-consumed (and been algorithmically fed) content about depression and self harm on social media platforms including Instagram and Pinterest before she killed herself — has added further impetus to safety campaigners’ cause.
The coroner concluded that that “negative effects of online content” were a factor in Russell’s death. His report also urged the government to regulate the sector.