Written evidence submitted by Bumble (OSB0055)
Dear Select Committee Members,
Bumble welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Joint Select Committee’s call for evidence as an opportunity to share our thoughts on the draft Online Safety Bill. At Bumble, we believe everyone should feel safe not just on our services, but on all corners of the Internet. Our mission to create a world where all relationships are healthy and equitable, extends beyond dating to its impacts on the wider world, for women globally.
We welcome the draft Online Safety Bill and firmly support the government’s desire to make the UK the safest place to go online. Our submission is focused on areas where we feel that we can best add value and insight based on the aims and values of our organisation and our unique experience in developing systems and processes to mitigate against harms, particularly those that disproportionately impact women. Bumble’s response and recommendations are supported by the unique insights we have gleaned through user surveys exploring some of the acute harms that women face online.
Bumble strongly supports the creation of a regulatory regime for online harms and calls for the draft Bill to explicitly include a duty of care to tackle the harms that women face online. We also encourage greater clarity in the draft Bill to ensure that it provides clear guidelines and functions effectively. We support the Committee’s efforts and welcome any questions concerning our submission.
Head of Public Policy, Europe
Written evidence submitted by Bumble
1. Bumble Inc. (BMBL) is the parent company that operates Badoo and Bumble, respectively dating, and dating, professional networking, and friend-finding apps that encourage integrity, kindness, equality, confidence, and respect during all stages of any relationship — whether online or offline.
- Bumble is built on the importance of equitable relationships and to challenge the antiquated notions of assigned gender roles by empowering women to make the first move no matter the type of relationship. We have helped customers initiate over 1.7 billion individual connections and have over 42 million regular monthly users, with a substantial customer base in the United Kingdom.
- On Bumble, only women can initiate conversations with men in heterosexual matches. Our customers’ safety and mental wellbeing are top priorities for Bumble and inform all aspects of our work across all our products. We have pioneered industry leading systems and processes to improve the safety of our customers including robust policies and procedures to help mitigate against harms that might be encountered by those using our products.
- Bumble products are built around the principles of kindness, respect and equality. Everyone in the community is accountable and there is a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, harassment, hate, or aggression of any kind. We design and market our products toward adults, and we employ various measures to prevent anyone under the age of 18 from registering for or using any of our services.
- Bumble’s mission is to create a world where all relationships are healthy and equitable. This extends beyond just dating to its impact on the wider world, for women globally.
- Bumble welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Committee’s inquiry on the Draft Online Safety Bill. We have focussed our response on the areas where we feel that we can best add value and insight, based on the aims and values of our organisation, the size and user base of our products, and our experience in developing systems and processes to mitigate against harm.
- At Bumble, we believe everyone should feel safe not just using our services, but on all corners of the Internet. We welcome the government’s commitment to bring forward the Online Safety Bill in the 2021/22 parliamentary session, and support its overall ambition and approach. We welcome the establishment of a new proportionate regulatory regime to tackle online harms in the UK.
- Nonetheless, Bumble believes the Online Safety Bill should explicitly recognise the disproportionate experience and impact that certain online harms have on women, and it should empower government, the future regulator, and services in scope to do more to address these harms and prioritise the safety of women online. It is vital that this Bill does not become a missed opportunity to meaningfully reduce these harms. To achieve this, Bumble recommends that the Draft Bill should explicitly include a duty of care to tackle the acute harms that women face online, such as image-based abuse, sexual harassment that takes place or is facilitated online, misogynistic content, gendered hate crime and stalking.
- The Draft Bill could also do more to implement the government’s desire to unlock innovation through digital regulation. We believe there is opportunity for new strategic duties to be given to Ofcom to protect innovation, so that services in scope are not prevented from pioneering new technology to mitigate harms as a consequence of compliance with the regime.
- The regime proposed in the Draft Bill has already made the UK a study for other jurisdictions as they consider legislating to tackle online harms. Special regard should be given to ensuring that all provisions are proportionate, rational, and effective as policymakers outside of the UK will be liable to follow this example.
Does the draft Bill make adequate provisions for people who are more likely to experience harm online or who may be more vulnerable to exploitation?
- Research shows that women and men tend to have different experiences of using the Internet, particularly when it comes to social media. Indeed, there is evidence to show that women both disproportionately experience, and are adversely affected by, certain online harms, such as image-based abuse, sexual harassment, and stalking. It is also likely that many instances go unreported.
- Bumble conducted surveys of customers to understand the prevalence of intimate image abuse and cyberflashing in the UK. In respect to the former, every woman we polled in the UK said that they consider the non-consensual sharing of intimate images to be a serious issue, with 86% deeming it to be very serious and leading to harm in all instances. Of those who experienced non-consensual taking and/or sharing of an intimate image suffered negative impacts to their mental health (90%), self-esteem (72%), their relationships with others (65%), their feelings of physical safety (63%), and their willingness to fully engage online (50%). On cyberflashing, 1 in 4 (28%) of the women surveyed found that the prevalence of unsolicited lewds online had gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, whilst 1 in 3 (33%) believed that cyberflashing had become part and parcel of online behaviour nowadays.
- Bumble believes there is an opportunity for the Draft Bill to recognise these disproportionate experiences and impacts, beyond merely requiring services to react to breaches of criminal law or leaving the Secretary of State to prioritise them. The Draft Bill should be amended to explicitly acknowledge this, as we set out below.
- While it is welcome that the Draft Bill recognises - in certain circumstances - the importance of user complaints and content that particularly affects people with a “certain characteristic”, “combination of characteristics” and indeed a “certain group of people” (clauses 15, 45, and 46), there is a particular risk that services are not sufficiently incentivised to embed this practice within their processes and systems. This is especially true of clause 46 which, owing to differentiated expectations, will not apply to all (or perhaps even most) services.
- We recognise that, in order to promote flexibility, the Draft Bill must strike a balance between setting out some aspects of the regulatory regime in primary legislation and deferring others to regulations at a future date. Indeed, we understand that many emerging and future harms are likely to target and unevenly affect women, and it is right that this should be anticipated by the regime. However, in considering how illegal content that disproportionately affects women - such as image-based abuse and sexual harassment - might be given overall prominence in the regime, we are concerned that any reliance on the Secretary of State to prioritise it through clause 41 (and its legal but harmful analogues in clause 46) would not be as robust and effective as protections on the face of the Bill. Including more within the Bill would not only reduce this risk, but also provide more certainty for services in scope, increase direct parliamentary scrutiny, and potentially expedite the issuing of codes of practice (discussed below).
- Within this provision, as Carnegie UK Trust has previously noted, there is a question mark over whether the Secretary of State can choose to include priority content which does not satisfy the test of the victim being an individual. This is particularly important if the Draft Bill is to capture misogynistic content not targeted at an individual, and should be resolved so that there is no impediment to services taking action to combat generalised abuse against women.
- We believe clause 30, which sets out the high-level online safety objectives that services will be required to follow, is a good candidate for amendment to mandate that systems and processes, including community guidelines, should be designed in a way that accounts for the different experiences of women online.
- We believe Part 4 of the Bill, specifically clause 56, is a good candidate for amendment to place duties on Ofcom to have regard for the disproportionate impact of some service functionalities and harms on women. This would empower Ofcom (and ultimately services in scope) to do more to address these harms and prioritise the safety of women online. It would also help to embed cultural change in how government and the regulator consider the impact of future changes to the regime on all end users.
The draft Bill specifically includes CSEA and terrorism content and activity as priority illegal content. Are there other types of illegal content that could or should be prioritised in the Bill?
- As noted above, Bumble recognises that the Draft Bill must remain flexible. In particular, it is clearly necessary for any changes in criminal law that tackle emerging online harms to be brought within the regime after the commencement of the Draft Bill. Nonetheless, we believe there is an opportunity to set out a broader range of illegal activity in the Draft Bill itself acknowledging the prevalence of harms suffered by women online, while allowing for secondary legislation to ensure longer term flexibility. Above all, it should not be left to the Secretary of State’s discretion for services to be obliged to mitigate and tackle harms that disproportionately affect women.
- Bumble believes that the government should look again at including offences relating to image-based abuse, sexual harassment that takes place or is facilitated online, misogynistic content, gendered hate crime, and stalking. Clearly this would be to the benefit of all service users, not just women, and could allow for expedited codes of practice in these areas (as seen with CSEA and terrorist content) to reduce harms as soon as possible.
- Outside of this Bill, the government should review the relevant terrorism offences in Schedule 2 and the Home Office’s categorisation of terrorist organisations to ensure they capture terror perpetrated to further misogynistic ideologies such as “incelism”. This particular ideology has been generated and shared almost wholly online and services in scope of the Draft Bill should have the requirement, means, and inclination to combat it.
- Bumble believes that the Draft Bill has the potential to make the UK the safest place to go online. However, as identified by the recent House of Lords inquiry, the inclusion of vague terms such as harmful content within the legislation without clear definition has the potential to threaten legitimate free speech. Moreover, without clear guidance in the Draft Bill about how safety duties should be reconciled with duties to protect customers’ privacy and freedom of expression rights, the unintended consequences may result in over-censorship or an implied general monitoring obligation. We encourage more clarity within the Draft Bill about the definition of important terms and how the legislation will interact with other statutes, codes and policies (e.g., existing UK privacy and intermediary liability laws and the Age Appropriate Design Code).
- The Draft Bill could also do more to implement the government’s desire to unlock innovation through digital regulation. Clause 115(4), which provides for the Secretary of State to review “the extent to which Ofcom have had regard to the desirability of encouraging innovation by providers of regulated services” could be accompanied by new subclauses in Part 4 of the Bill to place strategic duties on Ofcom to protect innovation. Services in scope must not be prevented from pioneering new technology to mitigate harms as a consequence of compliance with the regime.
- Bumble understands that the Draft Bill is part of the government’s wider ambition to roll-out innovation-enabling regulation. In order to be able to innovate, invest and grow, companies need certainty in the Draft Bill particularly to implement the necessary systems and processes to meet the proposed safety duties. As such, the potential to fundamentally change the underlying parameters of the Draft Bill through unilateral action could undermine the efforts of companies looking to invest in their systems to confidently comply with the law.
- Finally, the ambitious and comprehensive regulatory regime proposed in the Draft Bill has already made the UK an example for other jurisdictions as they consider legislating to tackle online harms. Special regard should therefore be given to ensuring that provisions are proportionate, rational, and effective as other policymakers (from both democratic and non-democratic governments) will be liable to follow this example. The opportunity afforded by pre-legislative scrutiny to get this framework right the first time should not be missed.
 As of September 2020, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1830043/000119312521009745/d20761ds1.htm
 DCMS, Digital Regulation: Driving growth and unlocking innovation. July 2021.
 Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report. April 2021.
 Carnegie UK Trust, The Draft Online Safety Bill: Carnegie UK Trust initial analysis. June 2021.
 M. Nadim and A. Fladmoe. A study in 2019 found that harassment of women was qualitatively different to harassment of men. Harassment of men generally focused on their opinions whereas harassment of women generally focused on their gender. See, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0894439319865518. July 2019.
 House of Lords. See, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6878/documents/72529/default/. July 2021.
 Ibid 2.