The Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill has published an extensive report, recommending a number of legislative changes that will change the bill’s focus from content to systems.
This is critically important. The draft bill, as it currently stands, focuses more on content – this leads to unproductive conversations about legality and illegality of such content, when the important issue is the underlying algorithms and data-driven targeting systems that manipulate what people see online based purely on clicks and ad revenues.
We, alongside many other civil society campaigners and whistleblowers like Frances Haugen, have driven this point home for months – and the Committee has listened. The Online Safety Bill is an incredibly important piece of legislation for democracy, and, if well executed, could set the stage globally for a new era of digital regulation that protects democracy by reducing social division and disinformation. The Committee’s recommendations, if incorporated into the legislation, would ensure the bill does just that.
Importantly, the recommendations put “safety by design” at the core of digital intervention, seeking to require platforms to mitigate harm risks that stems from the design of the platform itself. Slowing down the speed at which content spreads, requiring more human moderation of large social media groups, limiting “one-click shares”, and mandating special arrangements for elections and other “periods of heightened risk”, are sensible interventions that strike at the core of the problem instead of scrambling to address the symptoms.
They echo what we and other campaigners have said about anonymity, calling for a right to anyone to verify their identity on social media and a right to filter out content from verified or unverified users. They endorse the Law Commission’s recommendations for new criminal communications offences. They support restraining the Secretary of State’s powers over the digital world included in the draft bill. They support strong protections for freedom of speech, and address grey areas in the original bill that grant regulatory exemption for “citizen journalists” and “democratically important” content, replacing it with “content where there are reasonable grounds to believe it will be in the public interest”.
The recommendations are best taken collectively, working together to turn the bill into a truly systems-oriented and harm-reductive framework for digital regulation. This bill could usher in a new dawn of democracy-protecting digital intervention – it’s imperative that the recommended changes be made.
Read our full overview of the Joint Committee’s report below: