Sir Robert Buckland QC, Conservative MP for South Swindon and former Cabinet Minister, sits down with the Former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Baroness Nicky Morgan of Cotes, to discuss online security and the regulation of the Online Safety Bill.
Initially announced in 2019, the Online Safety Bill was introduced to tackle harmful online material including cyberbullying, racism, misogynistic abuse, pornography and material promoting violence and self-harm. In February and March 2022, the Government announced changes to the Bill.
Regulating harmful content
Calling for action to improve online security, Baroness Morgan opened the discussion by highlighting that: “There’s a pretty firm agreement in Westminster that this needs to be tackled,” adding that the regulated Online Safety Bill is a milestone and “the UK Government is taking what is a world-leading step.”
“The internet has grown up in such an unregulated way and yet its influence is so powerful and so pervasive in so many areas that it has to be right that govenments say…hang on a second, let’s have a look at what’s going on there,” she said.
Asking the all-important “should we regulate?” question, Baroness Morgan called for a debate on how we regulate and which bits of the internet we think need to be looked at in more detail. She asked people to ask themselves “is this right?”
While Baroness Morgan pointed out that “the internet has brought many advantages,” such as “to facilitate free speech,” and provide people with the ability to “campaign, particularly against oppressive regimes,” she believes that “there are some issues, and the regulation is way overdue.”
The scrutiny of the Bill
Addressing the critics of the Bill, Sir Robert commented that some see the Bill as a “cop out”. He added that “It’s leaving a lot of decisions to secondary legislation,” which have less scrutiny and less parliamentary time.
However, Robert says the secondary legislation “could have quite the effect on freedom of speech and content in a way that, perhaps, hadn’t been envisioned by the drafters of the Bill.”
Reflecting on the complexities of the Bill, Baroness Morgan told Sir Robert that, “It’s a very challenging piece of legislation” and one of the greatest challenges is that “technology is moving on so quickly. If you legislate for something to control an algorithm today then it could be a completely different way of content being curated and monitored and handled in, let’s say, two years’ time.”
Ultimately, Baroness Morgan believes that “you can’t put everything on the face of the bill,” adding that she thinks that “this is one of the first of the online safety bills in the sense that, inevitably, technology will change, platforms will change, the way people use them is going to change and this is a step in the right direction.”
Ofcom is given new powers
To make sure people comply with the new rules, the Bill has given new powers to Ofcom to fine firms and block access to harmful online material. Now, the regulator can request information from companies and executives who do not comply with the Online Safety Bill. This could result in up to two years in prison.
As a result, Baroness Morgan said: “Platforms and search engines are saying…we take very seriously our responsibility to check who’s advertising, or to make sure that content is not allowed to flourish.”
Yet, what they say and what’s happening on the platform can be two different things. Baroness Morgan said: “I do think we have to ask ourselves, why is it that we will allow to flourish…unchecked, misogynistic content? Content that promotes violence against women and girls, that is racist and that signs people towards violence?”
However, concluding the conversation with a thought-provoking comment, Sir Robert ended by saying: “It is clearly unlawful, but where do we draw the line?”
While a wholly unregulated space provides people with the platform for freedom of speech and allows enterprise, initiatives and productivity to flourish, it can also make way for harmful online material.
The new powers given to Ofcom will help regulate the internet. However, technology is evolving at an unprecedented rate.
Even if the legal harms set out in the additional legislation discourage issues such as self-harm, eating disorders and harassment and further prevent illegal content, will the regulations still be effective in years to come?