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The Online Safety Bill: Who you need to know and why

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Article first appeared here.

The Government has published the long-awaited and long-promised draft Online Safety Bill. Publication in draft form means that a bicameral Committee of MPs and Lords has been selected to subject the Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny. The Committee can gather evidence and make recommendations, but the final form of the Bill – the Bill presented for First Reading – is a matter for the Government. 

The selection of MPs and peers includes many who have been vocal and unashamedly critical of the response of social media platforms to online abuse. There is also the question of whether new media owes a debt to old – you might recall the stand-off between Facebook and the Australian Government earlier this year – which makes the inclusion of one former journalist and one former media executive interesting. The path forward is unpredictable. Introducing a Bill in draft form is usually a consensus-building device, but the Committee includes some very strong voices who have long-standing agendas. Alternatively, perhaps the Government have elected to take this route to draw the sting of any opposition it could face down the line.

This is landmark, first-of-its-kind legislation: social media platforms have never been regulated before in the UK. We at DeHavilland will monitor the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and what follows so that you can see how the new regulatory landscape takes shape, and who matters.

For now, we have compiled short profiles of the draft Bill Committee members, so here's who you need to know and why.

1. Conservative MP Damian Collins

Mr Collins has been a prominent voice in the digital policy space, having been the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee from 2016-19 and Chair of the DCMS Sub-Committee on Disinformation in 2019. Mr Collins has been highly critical of social media companies because of their failure to address the abuse and racism on their platforms. He has repeatedly called for greater regulation. Additionally, he has voiced his support for old media journalism and the push to have social media platforms pay for news content.

2. Conservative MP Dean Russell

Mr Russell sits on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Health and Social Care Committee. Mr Russell is the chair of the APPG on Digital Identity and has spoken about the role of social media in creating an increase in eating disorders. In a recent debate on the freedom of speech, he spoke about “hate mobbing” on social media, as well as the risk of opinion echo chambers.

3. Conservative MP Suzanne Webb

Ms Webb has been the member for Stourbridge since 2019 and the parliamentary private secretary to the Department for International Trade ministerial team since October 2020. Ms Webb spoke most recently about online harms during the urgent question on racist abuse on social media, when she criticised social media platforms’ slow response. Her public comments on online safety have been focused on the importance of protecting young people, specifically from altered images that create dangerous aspirations and body image problems. 

4. Labour MP Debbie Abrahams

Ms Abrahams has repeatedly voiced her discontent at social media platforms’ handling of online abuse. In recent months, she has been vocal about platforms failing to address the racial abuse experienced by athletes. Ms Abrahams has previously noted the “capacity of social media and digital platforms to benefit society”, but has cited online anonymity as a core component of online abuse.

5. Labour MP Darren Jones

Mr Jones is a qualified solicitor specialising in consumer, technology and telecommunications law, and is the current Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. As such, and as an aspiring and new-ish MP, he is one to watch on the Online Harms Bill Committee. He has extensive interest in digital policy: he is co-Chair of PICTFOR, chair of the APPG on technology and national security, and chair of the Institute of AI. He is seen as one of the key voices on tech policy within the Labour Party and has spoken about the need for Ofcom access to information on how people use technology. He has said that the Online Safety Bill needs to provide a “credible answer” to disinformation. 

6. SNP MP John Nicolson

Mr Nicolson is a former BBC and ITV journalist and has been active in media policy during both his stints as an MP – from 2015 to 2017 and from 2019 to the present. He sits on both the DCMS Committee and the DCMS Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Disinformation. A key issue for him is online anonymity and his belief that it facilitates online harms. He has repeatedly called for the problem to be addressed in the Bill.

7. Conservative peer Lord Gilbert of Panteg

Lord Gilbert has been a member of the House of Lords since 2015 and is the Chair of the Lords Communications and Digital Committee. Lord Gilbert has led a number of Committee inquiries into issues such as freedom of expression online and the future of journalism. The Committee’s most recent report called for tougher regulation of firms such as Google and Facebook, and the need to criminalise the producers of harmful content.

8. Conservative peer Lord Black of Brentwood

Lord Brentwood is a member of the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee and is a vice-chair of the APPG on Media Freedom. As a past executive director of Telegraph Media Group, Lord Black has vast experience in the media industry. He has been vocal in his support for news agencies to be fairly compensated for their material being published on social media but what is his appetite for regulating content and voice?

9. Labour peer Lord Knight of Weymouth

Lord Knight was Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform in the last years of the Brown Government, during which time he forged a reputation for conciliation and collegiate working, including in the House of Commons. Lord Knight sits on the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee and has been noticeably quieter on online safety compared with other members of the Committee. But that does denote sanguinity. On the publication of the online harms White Paper, he referred to the illegal online campaigning during the Brexit referendum through Facebook ads as a “firehose of lies”.

10. Labour peer Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

Lord Balmacara was a senior policy adviser to Gordon Brown while he was Prime Minister. As a member of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, Lord Stevenson has been present for a number of oral evidence sessions held with big platforms – Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat. He has stated that online platforms have “a responsibility to protect users against fraudulent and scam content”. 

11. Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones

Lord Clement-Jones became a life peer in 1998 and has been the Liberal Democrat Lords spokesperson on digital since 2017. As one of the longest serving peers within the draft Online Safety Bill Committee membership, Lord Clement-Jones has long been a voice on digital issues within Parliament, having chaired the AI Committee from 2017 to 2018. He is critical of where the Online Safety Bill stands and has called for further measures to address issues such as economic harms, online anonymity and fake news.

12. Crossbench peer Baroness Kidron

Baroness Kidron is a former member of the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee. As the chair of 5Rights Foundation, a charity that campaigns to protect children online, it is unsurprising to learn that Baroness Kidron’s main focus is children’s safety. She has spoken frequently about the need to legislate to protect children online and wants further specificity within the Bill on children’s rights.