MPs investigate Online Safety Bill shortcomings

The Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) sub-committee is launching a new inquiry into the government’s approach to tackling harmful online content, outlined in its draft Online Safety Bill.

The committee said that the draft legislation would compel social media sites and search engines to remove harmful content such as terrorist content, child sexual exploitation and abuse, and disinformation that causes individual harm.

But it warned that the focus has shifted since the introduction of the Online Safety Strategy Green Paper in 2017, raising concerns about the definition of harm.

It said that the definition is now "too narrow" and may fail to address issues such as non-state intervention in elections, racist abuse, and content that contributes to self-harm and negative body image.

MPs will explore “key omissions” of the draft Bill, such as a general duty for tech companies to deal with reasonably foreseeable harms, a focus on transparency and due process mechanisms or regulatory powers to deal with urgent security threats, and how any gaps can be filled before the Bill is finalised.

Another focus will be on where lessons can be learnt from international efforts to regulate BigTech, such as in France, Germany, and Australia.

“The Online Safety Bill has been long overdue, and it’s crucial that the Government now gets it right. As a Sub-Committee we look forward to conducting scrutiny work prior to legislation being introduced,” said Julian Knight MP, DCMS committee chair. “We’re seeking evidence on what the Bill doesn’t currently address and how improvements can be made to better serve users now and in the future.”

Knight added: “We’re concerned about how the regime will respond to new dangers, which must be a priority in a fast-changing digital environment, and that critical issues such online racist abuse could fall out of scope.”

The inquiry by the House of Commons DCMS sub-committee is distinct from any work by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, established by the House of Lords and the House of Commons on 23 July.

This inquiry will take a broad approach to scrutinising the Bill, and may cover areas such as: how the changing circumstances of its introduction from the Online Safety Strategy Green Paper and Online Harms White Paper to now have shaped its development and how it will interlock with other areas of government policy.

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