Written evidence submitted by techUK
techUK response to DCMS sub-committee Inquiry into Online Safety and Online Harms
techUK and its members are committed to online safety and want to create safer online experiences for the whole of society. We welcome the draft Online Safety Bill and firmly support the objectives to make the UK the safest place to go online while upholding free speech and supporting innovation.
For several years, Parliamentarians, officials and a broad range of stakeholders have been debating and discussing at a theoretical level how to create safer online spaces. The publication of the draft Online Safety Bill in May 2021 marked a significant step forward in the practical realisation of the Government’s vision. It provides some clarity on exempt services listed in Schedule 1 while confirming the focus on user-generated content and related systems and processes that address harms. The draft Bill also shows clear political intent to protect news journalism and free speech. Its publication has enabled civil society, tech companies, stakeholders, and Parliamentarians to begin to consider how the regime would work in practice.
However, as we will go on to discuss, some of the key elements of the regime remain vague. This poses a challenge for in-scope companies and the regulator to assess the full extent and workability of the proposed framework. For example: the types of harms in scope and their prevalence are yet to be defined; the thresholds to assign companies to categories are not finalised; the potential number of codes of practice are unknown; and there is no clear picture about how free speech and harmful content will be balanced. These are all fundamental parts of the regime which will need to be clarified to enable the 24,000 businesses in scope and Ofcom to fully inform the legislative processes, and then begin preparing for the legislation in a confident and coherent way.
The ultimate test of this legislation will be whether it provides clear guidelines to enable in-scope companies and the regulator to make effective decisions which meet the stated policy objectives and in turn result in a reduction in harmful content and levels of harm experienced by individuals. If the legislation fails to meet this goal, it will likely give rise to levels of ambiguity which may lead to ineffective action and risk significant damage to fundamental user rights to freedom of expression and privacy. It would also place a significant burden on smaller businesses who are looking to innovate and grow in UK markets.
techUK welcomes the DCMS sub-committee call for evidence as an opportunity to comment on some of the broader questions around how the online safety regime has developed. Our response will first provide some regulatory context to the draft Bill before delving into the questions which the Committee is asking as part of its Inquiry.
Setting the regulatory scene
The Online Safety Bill is one form of digital regulation that will impact the UK’s diverse tech sector. Its provisions overlap with the Age-Appropriate Design Code (AADC) which came into force in September 2021. It will supersede the Video-sharing Platform (VSP) regime which is currently being formed and it will involve many of the same companies who are expected to benefit from the UK’s new pro-competitive market regulation which is open for consultation until October 2021.
Amidst the range of regulatory initiatives, there is a need to form a balanced and workable online safety framework which delivers on the objectives while supporting innovation and investment in the UK economy, especially by smaller businesses. The Online Safety Bill cannot be viewed in isolation and techUK is pleased to the see the Government acknowledge the need for better regulatory coordination.
For example, the DCMS Plan for Digital Regulation, published in July 2021, sets out government’s objectives for innovation-enabling regulation with three key principles for policymakers to follow when crafting digital regulation: 1) actively promote innovation 2) achieve forward-looking and coherent outcomes 3) exploit opportunities and address challenges in the international arena.
Separately, the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum – made up of Ofcom, ICO, CMA, FCA - was formed in July 2020 to facilitate regulatory coordination in digital markets, and cooperation in areas of mutual importance. It launched its annual plan for work in March 2021 which included priorities such as joining up regulatory approaches, responding to industry developments and building skills and capabilities.
techUK would like to see the Committee ensure that the Online Safety Bill leads the way in promoting innovation-enabling regulation for the thousands of in-scope digital businesses, while supporting Ofcom to understand their duties around decision-making.
How has the shifting focus between ‘online harms’ and ‘online safety’ influenced the development of the new regime and draft Bill?
The policy objective of the Online Safety Bill is to make the UK the safest place to go online while protecting free speech and supporting innovation. ‘Safety’ is more of an objective term which supports positive and aspirational outcomes for users. By contrast, ‘harm’ is more subjective and wholly negative making it hard to measure and largely untested in law.
While it is helpful that the draft Bill has a “safety by design” focus and imposes duties on the use of systems and processes rather than in relation to individual content moderation decisions, the draft Bill still requires all providers that can be accessed by children to take action in respect of legal but harmful content towards children and category 1 providers to take action in respect of legal but harmful content towards adults and children without meaningful clarity on the scope of those obligations.
Overall, the change from ‘harm’ to ‘safety’ appears to be more of a question of semantics rather than any change in the development of the regime.
Is it necessary to have an explicit definition and process for determining harm to children and adults in the Online Safety Bill, and what should it be?
techUK members condemn illegal activity being perpetrated on their platforms and services and it is important that the Online Safety Bill continues to prioritise the regulation of illegal content, building on existing laws and practices. The draft Bill provides definitions and guidelines around CSEA and terror content, as two priority illegal content types in scope, which shows a step forward in supporting a joined-up approach between tech, law enforcement and the regulator. There are already many company-led systems and processes in place to eliminate CSEA and terror content which should be considered as part of how in-scope services can fulfil their illegal content safety duties.
To ensure that in-scope services can fully understand the extent of the illegal content duties, the Bill must provide further detail on the additional offences which will be considered ‘illegal content’ and ‘priority’ illegal content. This will enable businesses to have a clear picture of the illegal activity in scope of the Bill which will support quicker and more decisive action by both in-scope services and the regulator.
Definitions of harmful content
techUK and its members are committed to user safety on individual platforms. Many different services support initiatives to combat harmful content online while providing user reporting mechanisms and outlining in community guidelines how they expect platforms to be used in a way that is not harmful to others. The sector is in full agreement with the Government’s objective to make the UK the safest place to be online and is aware that more needs to be done collectively to reduce levels of harmful and illegal content, including hate speech and CSAM, and the harm to users such content causes.
To achieve this, while protecting free speech, the draft Bill should provide clear guidelines or definitions around what types of content will be included as harmful content in scope directed towards adults and children and how different types of harmful content should be dealt with. In its current form, the onus is on companies to decide what types of content are harmful and how they should be dealt with through their terms of service. This has the potential to result in inefficient action, inconsistent meanings of harmful content across the sector and an inevitable over-removal of content which could result in wide-spread violations of individual rights to free expression.
Furthermore, some of our members are concerned about the safety duties in respect of legal but harmful content and how they create a requirement for providers to use systems and processes in a way that could prevent access to a wide range of lawful content. These risk amounting to a general monitoring requirement and such obligations would necessitate the use of technology to filter and automatically remove content which would prevent providers from carrying out careful analysis of context. The inability of providers to understand their obligations has the potential to push services into designing systems in a way that removes legitimate and lawful “grey area” content, seeing this as the safer route to compliance.
To help create safer online spaces – while avoiding forms of censorship becoming the norm in democratic societies – the legislation must outline all of the types of harmful content which will be in scope with codes of practice providing descriptions of the types of content which should be interpreted as harmful or not harmful towards adults or children. In addition, an evidence-led and democratic process is needed to identify future harms, as well as to evaluate the levels of risk associated with existing harms and whether they should remain in scope. This could involve setting up an independent committee responsible for providing evidence for new harms as they emerge and seeking democratic approval for whether they should be included in scope and the potential implications on freedom of expression, while identifying when activity no longer presents a high risk of harm due to changes in systems and user experiences.
In addition, techUK maintains that further efforts should be placed in educating citizens to develop better digital rights and behaviours which prevent them from perpetrating harmful behaviour. Balancing competing individual rights and regulating content online remain very human issues and we should not lose sight of the fact that we are not only discussing regulation of companies who host user generated content but also the regulation of individuals and what they say and do online.
The recent DCMS media literacy strategy provides useful insight into the media literacy capabilities of society while striving to stimulate activity in the UK which both supports online safety and encourages users to make the most of what the internet has to offer. This is a step in the right direction, although the test will be whether this plan is put into action to ensure media literacy remains of equal importance to any form of regulation and we urge the committee to analyse the Government’s plans in this regard as part of the ongoing scrutiny of the Bill.
Greater protection towards children
techUK and its members support the objective to provide greater protection for children as a potentially vulnerable group who use the internet. However, some of the requirements around implementing this protection could give risk to unintended consequences for children, including limiting access to online services and benefits.
There is a shared commitment across industry, children’s charities, and Parliament to form a process which provides greater protection towards children. The draft Bill aims to achieve this by requiring all companies in scope to have a duty to protect children from harmful content if the child can access the service. As framed in the explanatory notes, ‘a provider is only able to conclude it is not possible for a child to access their service if there are robust systems and processes, such as age verification measures, in place that ensures children are not normally able to access their service’. The implication is that age-verification, coupled with reviews of the effectiveness of the software and systems, has the potential to reduce businesses’ compliance requirements under the child safety duties. The risk of this approach is that it could incentivise widespread age-gating which could result in children under 18 being prevented or significantly impeded from access to the internet. While it is right to think about children’s special vulnerabilities and risks from online services, it is also important to put this in the wider context of the enormous benefits that technology and access to online services brings to children. These requirements could also require general monitoring for services to be able to verify age, which is in conflict with privacy laws and may conflict with UK law on intermediary liability.
Furthermore, many of the techniques around age verification are imperfect and the technologies are not necessarily tried and tested on scale. Machine learning models can never be 100% accurate as they can only provide a prediction of whether the user is likely above 18. In relation to other verification mechanisms, such as credit card and other ID checks, it is important for the solution to not be overly intrusive and disproportionate to the purposes for age assurance being obtained. This could result in two key issues. First, techniques may result in a conservative approach which denies children access to the benefits of the online world, such as knowledge, connection, enjoyment and expression. Second, new technologies could have implications on children’s data collection which may conflict with the AADC.
Although many of the same user-to-user services in scope of the Bill are looking to comply with the AADC which comes into force in September 2021, the legislation does not currently outline in detail how the ‘child safety test’ will interact with the AADC likely to be accessed by a child test. Given the overlap of companies in scope of both the AADC and the Bill, there is a need to explicitly address the links between the two regimes and any inconsistencies when it comes to protection of children’s data. In addition, there is a need to clarify that a decision made by smaller in-scope service to implement safety tools under the Online Safety Bill will not necessarily bring them into scope of the AADC.
techUK urges the Committee to recognise the delicate balance between children’s rights and their protection and that the Bill should enshrine a risk-based approach built on available age-assurance methods. This would promote the use of technologies that are fit for purpose and ensure the range of opportunities to learn, create, explore, and socialise online are not denied for under 18s.
Does the draft Bill focus enough on the ways tech companies could be encouraged to consider safety and/or the risk of harm in platform design and the systems and processes that they put in place?
Innovation and competition
As outlined in the Plan for Digital Regulation, policymakers should consider how to ‘actively promote innovation’ when crafting regulation. The draft Bill seeks to align with this principle through supporting proportionality and following systems and processes which should enable regulation to be agile in a fast-moving sector. However, in practice the vast number of companies in scope has the potential for ripple effects in the UK economy which could adversely impact competition and innovation in the digital ecosystem.
The Government’s impact assessment notes how the Bill will impact 24,000 businesses with estimated costs of £2.1 billion. The costs of this legislation span a range of different sized companies that are part of an inventive, fast moving and constantly evolving tech sector. The impact assessment includes requirements around establishing compliance teams and developing capacity to moderate content, which does not account for the realities of smaller businesses who may need to divert staff away from venture investment or source additional funding to resource compliance. This could have implications on the ability of smaller companies to compete with their larger comparators and create the need to consider attendant regulatory cost in addition to other economic implications of the legislation.
Furthermore, there are provisions within the draft Bill which have the potential to stall the growth of investment and invention across a wide range of in scope services. For example, Part 4 allows Ofcom to require a service to use an accredited technology to scan and remove illegal content. This risks disincentivising in scope services from developing more innovative technology and could give rise to unintended consequences. Those intending to cause harm through platforms will actively look for loopholes in technology to persist with criminal or otherwise harmful online activity. Providers need to be able to adapt their technological solutions to keep ahead of the constant and evolving threats and mandating specific technology solutions will run counter to this, by locking companies into solutions that bad actors will be able to easily learn and exploit to their advantage. Part 2 on risk assessment duties outlines how companies will need to review and update the assessment when they make a change to their service, which may result in smaller businesses being deterred from innovation due to a lack of capacity to keep up with levels of administration around risk assessments.
Finally, although considered as a last resort the proposal to include criminal sanctions for senior managers risks having a chilling effect on smaller companies and investment in the UK digital economy. For some companies, the very existence of turnover fines may be sufficient to deter investment with knock on effects for competition between firms and choice for consumers. This would be a poor outcome and conflict with the Government’s broader goal for the digital economy set out in many strategies and the Digital Regulation Plan. Therefore, the Committee should support Ofcom to have a bias towards promoting and support compliance and reserve sanctions for cases of non-compliance with reporting obligations or repeated failures to address a systemic issue.
Overall, we welcome the intention for Ofcom to outline its enforcement approach in guidance to give clarity to providers, as it does in relation to other regulated sectors. That enforcement approach should begin with private information or enforcement notices, allowing providers a reasonable opportunity to investigate and, if necessary, take appropriate action. This will no doubt vary from company to company making it particularly important to avoid a one size fits all approach towards compliance.
techUK ask the Committee to consider amendments to address the economic implications of the Bill for smaller businesses, fair competition, and innovation. Over-proscriptive and heavily administrative approaches could overwhelm start-ups and SMEs who are looking to grow and evolve in the tech ecosystem.
What are the key omissions to the draft Bill, such as a general safety duty or powers to deal with urgent security threats, and (how) could they be practically included without compromising rights such as freedom of expression?
Economic crimes and online fraud
techUK agrees there is a need for a new action plan to address potential harm to consumers arising from online fraud. However, the majority of techUK members believe that the Online Safety Bill is not the right mechanism to address economic crimes. Extending the scope in this way would de-rail the already complex legislation from achieving its stated aims and delay practical action to reduce levels of online fraud. Rather, the solution lies in coordinated action within digital supply chains and between enforcement authorities. We therefore encourage the Committee to forbear a recommendation to extend the scope of the Bill to include economic crimes.
The Committee should also note that Home Office has recently launched its 2022 – 2025 Fraud Action Plan to disrupt online fraud and DCMS will publish a separate consultation in Autumn 2021 on advertising regulation which will specifically look at the current regulation of paid-for advertising. Given the research and specialism that has gone into developing the Fraud Action Plan and Online Advertising Programme, these should remain the two appropriate vehicles to consider legislative and non-legislative approaches towards tackling online fraud.
Online Fraud Steering Group
techUK acknowledges the ongoing threat to consumers from online fraud and our members have a shared ambition to enhance collaboration between sectors to build on existing solutions while increasing consumer awareness and resilience. In April 2021, the Online Fraud Steering Group (OFSG) was set up, co-chaired by techUK, UK Finance and the National Economic Crime Centre, to form collective solutions to the respond to patterns of fraudulent activity.
Since being formed, the group has agreed a delivery infrastructure, operational principles, and governance, including how it will engage with the Home Office’s Joint Fraud Taskforce. Four key workstreams have begun work to cut across different fraud typologies: 1) online advertising, 2) developing a threat assessment 3) enhancing communications and education and 4) striving for innovative and preventative solutions.
techUK members believe that collaboration across public and private sectors, the DCMS Online Advertising Programme and the Home Office Fraud Action Plan should be prioritised as the appropriate vehicles to review online advertising and form tangible solutions which reduce the threat of online fraud.
Are there any contested inclusions, tensions or contradictions in the draft Bill that need to be more carefully considered before the final Bill is put to Parliament?
Making the UK the safest place to go online and freedom of expression
techUK and its members believe that this legislation has the potential to make the UK the safest place to go online while protecting free speech. It is rightly ambitious and strives to set a global example of how to create safer online spaces while protecting fundamental human rights.
However, the Bill is dealing with largely societal issues and the dual objectives to make the UK the safest place to go online while protecting freedom of expression must be balanced with one another. While it is often advertised that online harms regulation is of technology companies, the regulation is moderating individual voices and behaviour with technology companies acting as the channel. As identified in the recent House of Lords inquiry, the inclusion of harmful content within the legislation and its vague definition has the potential to pose a threat to legitimate free speech.
Tech companies in techUK’s membership are committed to enhancing user safety and protecting free speech, although there is no guidance in the Bill about how the safety duties are to be reconciled with duties to protect users’ fundamental human rights and to give special importance to certain types of content. As with many aspects of the draft Bill, it remains unclear whether the codes of practice, to be published by Ofcom, will specify exactly how services are expected to balance these competing duties.
Furthermore, the potential general monitoring requirements created by duties to minimise the presence and dissemination of content and prevent access to it does not support a proportionate approach towards content regulation. In-scope services might find themselves over-cautiously blocking content at upload or taking content down without questioning whether it is harmful or not.
techUK and its members are committed to user safety and would like to see the Bill provide further clarity on how in scope services should go about creating safer online spaces while protecting free speech. In its current form, the lack of detail and guidance gives way to ambiguity which could result in unintended consequences for users and society.
Protecting right to privacy
The draft Bill does not adequately address the need to balance user privacy and safety with certain provisions diverging from the Full Government’s Response to the White Paper and the UK’s international human rights obligations.
Privacy is important because it enables users to set boundaries, protect themselves from harm and make free choices. The overwhelming majority of users are responsible and law-abiding and have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they share within a limited or controlled group. It is a mistake to assume that all information is either wholly private or wholly public: users may choose to share with one other person; a small, closed group; or a wider audience. They also share information for personal and work purposes and will have a separate privacy expectation in each context. Regulation to mandate removal of content that is ill-defined provides perverse incentives for companies to be overly censorious, particularly when accompanied by strong sanctions. The risk to fundamental freedoms is even greater when regulation mandates proactive reporting of potentially harmful behaviour to law enforcement.
The explanatory notes provide the first mention of encrypted services by outlining how Ofcom may require accredited technology to identify CSEA content on any part of the service (including in relation to encrypted private communications). It is not entirely clear how this would work in practice, although these powers have the potential to amount to Ofcom mandating the use of third-party technology to proactively monitor private communications which would in effect require businesses to carry out interception at scale and remove relevant content. While more needs to be done to prevent CSEA, this provision is highly complex and controversial because it has the potential to significantly undermine the levels of security and privacy available to most users who have not committed illegal crimes. The implications of these provisions need to be addressed in detail to ensure that the approach towards private messaging is balanced and proportionate, taking into account the adverse impact on the average consumer and whether there are alternative solutions to combat CSEA content without overriding encryption.
techUK asks the DCMS committee to consider the levels of clarity still needed in the draft Bill to translate the shared commitments to support user safety and protect human rights into a workable framework for 24,000 businesses in scope.
Business to Business Services
The draft Bill outlines a reduction of scope from the Full Government Response with some areas of clarity on the exemptions listed in Schedule 1, including for email, SMS/MMS and one-to-one aural communications. However, there is no explicit mention of the exclusion of enterprise and business services from the duty of care which departs from Section 116 (2) and 116(4) of the White Paper.
Given their role in the value chain, it is understood that the intention is for B2B service providers to be exempt from safety duties and that they should be considered ‘access facilities’ (Part 7, Section 4 of draft Bill) who only have responsibilities when Ofcom applies to the court for an ‘access restriction order’ (Part 7, clause 93).
The draft Bill’s explanatory notes go on to explain what this means in practice saying: “For example, if entity A buys software from software company B on a software-as-a-service basis, and the software enables entity A to create a regulated service, entity A (rather than software company B) is to be considered the service provider” (para. 730).
While the guidance is clear, the actual legislation is not. The guidance itself is not law. techUK believes that the most effective way of ensuring that the Government’s clearly established intentions are met would be through the finding of a formulation that is based on the guidance, rather than the current one in the draft Bill which is far less precise, and the formulation to be put on the face of the Bill itself.
Powers of the Secretary of State
Throughout the text of the draft Online Safety Bill there are several clauses which allow the Secretary of State to amend the provisions of the regulation. These amendment powers are in addition to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State listed in the text to set the threshold for categories of companies and to define which providers will be subject to fees which we consider more technical powers.
There are short-term concerns about some of the technical powers, including delays about when companies will be designated category and can start preparing for the regime. However, our broader concern around the powers of the Secretary of State relates to the amendment powers and how they will be used by current and future governments.
There are three main clauses which we have identified in the text to be problematic relating to the amendment powers of the Secretary of State:
The far-reaching amendment powers of the Secretary of State have the potential to fundamentally change the underlying parameters of the Bill which could undermine efforts which companies of all sizes are looking to invest in their systems to confidently comply with the law. For example, allowing the Secretary of State to amend the safety objectives and requiring Ofcom to review the codes to reflect Government policy may impair effective systems and processes which companies already have in place to moderate content (ones which will likely follow guidance from Ofcom).
As we move through this legislative process, clear delegation of responsibility and transparency in approach will be essential to allow both Ofcom and companies to get the regime set up in good shape quickly and confidently.
techUK and its members understand the need for the regulatory regime to change with the times but providing these powers to the Secretary of State is problematic. They could have adverse impacts on both the efficacy of the regime and Ofcom’s enforcement.
techUK firmly support’s Ofcom as an expert independent body that should be fully trusted to make decisions around codes of conduct and online safety objectives. The powers given to the Secretary of State have the potential to interfere with Ofcom’s independence.
techUK would support a process which enables Ofcom to follow guidance from the Secretary of State but ultimately leaves the powers of enforcement and decisions around enforcement with the communications regulator.
What are the lessons that the Government should learn when directly comparing the draft Bill to existing and proposed legislation around the world?
The strength of the UK Government’s framework towards regulating online content is the nuanced and proportionate approach with a focus on systems and processes rather than individual items of harmful content or specific instances of harmful behaviour. These factors, paired with clear political commitments to free expression and protection of journalism, make the Bill more worthy of emulation overseas than similar Bills from other governments.
The Government should however pay attention to features of the Bill which may detract from this. For example, as outlined above, the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State have authority to reject a code and require it to be re-written and to give strategic direction to the independent regulator. In the hands of a non-rule of law government, such powers would not align with UK foreign policy and the Government would not be in a strong position to object if they were copied.
In comparison, proposals in other markets – for example the EU’s Digital Services Act – do not break business confidence by giving government powers to interfere with products and explicitly support the development of industry led initiatives and self-regulation. Consideration should be given to the benefits of in-scope services being able to use the requirements of independent schemes such as IWF or GIFCT to meet duties of care, as well as their associated transparency and oversight frameworks. If this approach were to be adopted in the UK, it would free up Ofcom’s resources to focus on other issues, rather than duplicate effort unnecessarily. It would also make the regulatory framework more scalable and affordable for in scope companies and avoid needless overlap with existing, effective, work to tackle harms.
Furthermore, various standards adopted in the Bill take a different approach to the current regime that applies to online platforms, derived from the eCommerce Directive. First, the Good Samaritan Principle is lost in the draft Bill which does not serve to build confidence in how the regime will support proportionality and innovation for the 24,000 diverse businesses in scope. Second, the Bill’s definition of illegal content includes content which the provider “has reasonable grounds to believe” amounts to a relevant offence. This language is different from existing requirements, well-established following many years of legal development, to take action where a provider has “knowledge or awareness” of illegal activity or information (or of facts or circumstances from which illegal activity or information is apparent). Similarly, under the current regime, on becoming aware of illegal content, the provider must take action “expeditiously” whereas, under the Bill, providers must take action “swiftly”.
The use of similar but distinct legal concepts and terms, without further clarity on their meaning, introduces unnecessary complexity and ambiguity as to the expectations of providers under the forthcoming regime. To avoid undue confusion, language from the current regime could be used in the Bill.
techUK encourages the Committee to consider the benefits of international regimes which provide clear language, guidelines, and definitions for companies, including how they can enable quick and effective decision making around the removal of content.
 DCMS Plan for Digital Regulation: Driving growth and unlocking innovation, July 2021
 Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum, March 2021
 Online Safety Bill Explanatory Notes (page 28)
 University of East London: Institute for Connected Communities, Research for Ofcom on Protection of Minors
 techUK members BT and Sky do not hold the view expressed here. They are aligned with the Treasury Committee Work and Pensions Committee letter to the Prime Minister dated 21 July 2021, that the government should seek to ensure that the Bill allows for platforms to be made more accountable for tackling content which promotes consumer harms – including fraud, scams, pirated content and poor-quality goods or services, alongside the action taken elsewhere by the Government.
 House of Lords Digital and Culture Committee, 'Free for all? Freedom of expression in the digital age', July 2021
 Draft Online Safety Bill, Part 2, Clause 30 (page 27)
 Draft Online Safety Bill, Part 2, Clause 33 (page 29)
 Draft Online Safety Bill, Part 3 (page 46)