Online Safety Bill may do our democratic media more harm than good

By: Rob Corbidge, 23 February 2022

While reasons behind the introduction of new laws to protect us all online are well intentioned, some of the actual effects will be to hand Big Tech more power than it has already

What does "legal but harmful" mean to you? Smoking maybe? Drinking? All those health damaging vices that, as adults, we should make our own risk assessment for and proceed with, or avoid, as our conscience takes us. It's such a broad phrase though, that a particular reading of the words through an environmental lens could include driving a car, by way of example.

What if you were told you would suffer real world legal consequences for engaging in such harmful activity? Outside of coercive taxation of course. Chances are it would force you to take an ultra-cautious approach to such activities and avoid them.

Yet, under proposals in the draft Online Safety Bill , this is the wording of the legal test the Big Tech platforms will be obliged to make of content through their already opaque algorithms - algorithms which many say can already be damaging. Like many in the UK publishing industry, we believe this to be an error by the government.

There is a fear that the large platforms would simply remove content from trusted and established UK news sources if that content was deemed to be "harmful". In the absence of an absolute test of what that means, extreme caution would be exercised to the detriment of the plurality of our media.

News in particular is not of great concern to these platforms - it doesn't drive masses of traffic for them, or make lots of money. It's likely that the bigger media operations would survive such a loss, even if it is regrettable. For smaller publishers though, the platforms can provide essential eyeballs and make a significant contribution to their bottom line.

The aim to bring order and responsibility to activities in the digital world is a laudable one and it's admirable the British government has identified such governance as a priority. However, this particular clause cannot seem to exist without carrying on its back a clear and serious threat to freedom of expression.

Faced with such a test and the threat of very substantial fines, the danger is the Big Tech platforms will go turtle, and modify their algorithms to retreat from anything remotely contentious. 

With the recent promotion of former coalition deputy PM Nick Clegg to the highest strata in Facebook, now president of global affairs and in charge of all policy matters and dealing with governments, the former Liberal Democrat leader could arguably end up with more power in the UK than he ever dreamed of when in politics 'proper'. 

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has already made clear its reservations about the move. In January, DCMS Committee chairman Julian Knight MP commented: "In its current form what should be world-leading, landmark legislation instead represents a missed opportunity.

"The Online Safety Bill neither protects freedom of expression nor is it clear nor robust enough to tackle illegal and harmful online content."

The executive director of the Society of Editors, Dawn Alford, has also said the proposed legislation is "insufficient to protect freedom of expression", failing to take take account of the "fast nature of today's news process".

There is an appeals process through Ofcom to reinstate removed content, however as Ms. Alford indicates, given the nature of modern media, the audience horse has probably bolted by the time bureaucracy gets involved.

The DCMS select committee's report also said that the draft "does not provide a clear legislative basis upon which Ofcom will be able to judge the efficacy of measures, systems and processes (particularly algorithms and automated systems) in mitigating or managing the risk of such content."

It added that the Bill "may result in excessive takedowns by service providers especially where their terms and conditions specify that such content should be removed prima facie in order to meet the duties' requirements to enforce their terms of service consistently and thus avoid associated penalties."

There is still time to correct this error and further debate in parliament is scheduled. From the digital media perspective, it is refreshing to see politicians finally switched on to what the digital world is, with awareness of what the motivations, methods, influence and aims of Big Tech are. 

Britain has a chance to place down a standard the rest of the free world can use, let's hope we don't make an unintended mess of it.