DCMS launches Online Harms Inquiry including Call for Evidence

England and Wales

The DCMS Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Disinformation yesterday launched a new inquiry to scrutinise the Government’s approach to tackling harmful online content, as set out in the draft Online Safety Bill (the “Bill”), which was published in May 2021.

We previously covered the key aspects of the draft Bill. In particular, we discussed how the scope of the Bill had been expanded beyond the Government’s White Paper response (which we also covered here) by, for example, extending its scope to the imposition of duties on certain service providers to protect freedom of expression and democracy.

The Sub-Committee will investigate, and is inviting written submissions on, a number of key areas, including:

  • how the focus in the draft Bill has changed since the introduction of the Online Safety Strategy Green Paper in 2017 – this includes how the shifting focus between ‘online harms’ and ‘online safety’ might have influenced the development of the regime and draft Bill;

  • concerns that the definition of harm is too narrow and could fail to address concerns such as non-state interference in elections, racist abuse and material that contributes to self-harm – this also encompasses whether it is necessary to have an explicit definition and procedure for determining harm and what this should be;

  • whether the draft Bill focuses enough on how tech companies could be encouraged to consider safety and / or the risk of harm in their platform designs, systems and processes;

  • key omissions from the draft Bill, such as general duty for tech companies to handle reasonably foreseeable harms, and a focus on due process mechanisms or regulatory powers to resolve urgent security threats without compromising rights such as freedom of expression;

  • how any such gaps or contradictions in the draft Bill can be dealt with before the Bill is finalised; and

  • what lessons can be learnt from other global efforts to regulate tech companies, such as in France, Germany and Australia.

DCMS Committee Chair, Julian Knight MP has said: “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. 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.

Interested parties are invited to send written submissions to the Sub-Committee by Friday 3 September 2021, which address the above terms of reference (which can also be found here). This further consultation may well cause further delay to the passage of the draft Bill, the White Paper on which was first published over two years ago, and in turn the implementation of legal obligations and regulation relating to online safety.