Written evidence submitted by the Ofcom Advisory Committee for Scotland (OSB0067)
This document is the Ofcom Advisory Committee for Scotland response to the Joint pre-legislative scrutiny Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill Call for Evidence.
The Advisory Committee for Scotland (ACS) is one of a number of committees and advisory bodies, established under the Communications Act (2003) to inform the work of the Ofcom Board and Executive. The ACS is one of four committees representing each of the UK’s nations, specifically to ‘advise Ofcom about the interests and opinions, in relation to communications matters, of persons living in Scotland.’
This submission draws on the knowledge and expertise of ACS members and is informed by our individual experience and through discussion at our meetings. It does not represent the views of Ofcom or its staff. In our response to the Call for Evidence, we have focused on issues of particular relevance to Scotland.
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?
The ACS is of the view that online risk is not the same for all. Vulnerable users are more likely to experience harm online. Research into the online experiences of nearly 15,000 young people across the UK finds, for example: autistic young people are four times more likely than others to fall for an online scam; young carers are twice as likely to be bullied online; those with a long-term physical illness are nearly five times more likely to often see sites promoting violence, hatred or racist views; young people who are care experienced are six times more likely to say someone online tried to persuade them into unwanted sexual activity; and finally, young people with an eating disorder are nearly four times more likely to have their intimate images shared in revenge. The research also shows that if a young person encounters one risk online, they are more likely to encounter other risks as well. Ofcom research similarly finds that children with an impacting or limited health issue, condition or disability were more likely to have had a negative experience online. Scotland-specific research found correlations between gender, life satisfaction or mental wellbeing and engaging in risky behaviours online. As the UK moved online during the pandemic, there was increased online risk to vulnerable groups. For example, regular gamblers shifted to online gambling. We saw an increase in online child grooming. Calls to the Revenge Porn Helpline surged; and domestic abusers further used technology to facilitate their abuse. Device rollout programmes across the UK enabled many people to gain the sorely-needed benefits of connectivity during lockdown, but these programmes often targeted vulnerable groups – those who are most likely to be at risk online and who may need additional protections or supports.
At present, the draft legislation recognises that children are a vulnerable user group which need additional protections online. It would be helpful to clarify if the draft regulations also recognise other vulnerable groups at greater risk online. The regulations suggest that the level of risk to users can be calculated using factors such as how likely it would be that an average user would encounter a piece of harmful content. But the ACS believes this approach masks the differential experience of vulnerable users. Certain groups will be significantly more likely to be exposed to harmful content. What additional supports or protections can be made available for them?
Does the proposed legislation represent a threat to freedom of expression, or are the protections for freedom of expression provided in the draft Bill sufficient?
Content in Scope
Are the definitions in the draft Bill suitable for service providers to accurately identify and reduce the presence of legal but harmful content, whilst preserving the presence of legitimate content?
The Online Safety Bill describes an “offence” as an offence under the law of any part of the UK. There is a complex interplay between the Online Safety Bill (reserved) and devolved matters including child and adult protection, education, justice and policing. We would like to understand in more detail how online providers will be expected to respond where there are significant differences in legislation across the UK, for example regarding the definition of a hate crime.
There are potential differences in the experience of online harms across the four nations of the UK. As previously described, offline inequalities and vulnerabilities translate into differing online risk profiles. We feel it is important to understand the Scottish experience of online harms and protections. For example, are rural and/or remote communities at greater risk of harm online, because of a greater dependence on online services? How do online platforms respond to harmful sectarian content? What are the online experiences of people with drug or gambling addictions? What role do communications technologies play in relation to offline violence (such as knife crime)? To this end, the ACS thinks it is important that both the platform transparency reports and Ofcom’s reporting provide information analysed by nation.
Are there any types of content omitted from the scope of the Bill that you consider significant e.g. commercial pornography or the promotion of financial scams? How should they be covered if so?
Earlier proposals included content such as misinformation/disinformation that could lead to societal harm in scope of the Bill. These types of content have since been removed. What do you think of this decision?
If the starting point of the legislation is “Making Britain the safest place in the world to be online”, then the ACS takes the view the Bill should apply to any platform on which people could be harmed. Framing the legislation as only applying to an agreed definition of ‘user-to-user’ and ‘search’ services, excludes certain services and thereby certain harms. It provides an avenue for platforms to argue that they are not included in this definition, or to exploit new technologies as a means of exclusion.
The ACS believes commercial pornography should be included in the Bill or in other legislation with urgent implementation. BBFC research found that more than half of 11–13-year-olds in the UK had seen online pornography. Research shows that young people in Scotland seek information about sexual health and relationships online, including learning about it from online pornography. There is an association between pornography usage and harmful attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls. Access to adult pornography is one of the factors that may interact to create vulnerability in children to sexual exploitation.
The ACS also believes fraud should be included in the Bill. It is the most commonly experienced crime in the UK, partly due to the internet, internet connected devices, and automation of fraud campaigns. Twenty percent of internet users in Scotland having experienced cyber fraud or computer misuse. When asked about a range of crimes, people in Scotland are most worried about cyber fraud.
It is suggested that the separation of societal and individual harms is tenuous. Disinformation is a distinct threat, and can cause direct individual harm e.g. scams are a form of disinformation which is financially incentivised. The significant focus on media literacy in the Bill is at odds with the removal of disinformation. Effective media literacy skills include the ability to recognise a narrative. It’s not solely about realising that a single online post is inauthentic but understanding how the narrative of someone’s online environment shapes their world view, with implications both for the individual and society. Is disinformation deepening the digital divide, regarding skills to interpret, and ability to pay for, reliable online content? There is a risk that certain groups are marginalised.
Services in Scope
The draft Bill applies to providers of user-to-user services and search services. Will this achieve the Government's policy aims? Should other types of services be included in the scope of the Bill?
The draft Bill sets a threshold for services to be designated as 'Category 1' services. What threshold would be suitable for this?
The ACS notes that gaming is the UK’s most lucrative entertainment sector. Sixty-two percent of UK adults have played online games. Scotland has a thriving gaming industry but it is unclear if there is industry awareness of the Online Safety Bill and its implications for gaming platforms. Has there been sufficient response from gaming companies across the UK, including in Scotland, to these consultations?
The role of Ofcom
The ACS believes, as noted above, that there is a complex interplay between the high level and reserved nature of internet services/ online safety and devolved responsibilities in Scotland (and other parts of the UK). We think this will require Ofcom to develop a range of new partnerships in Scotland (e.g. with Police Scotland) and collaborate closely at working level with a wide range of interests within the Scottish Government (where the interests will be split across a range of Scottish ministerial portfolios).
Are the media literacy duties given to Ofcom in the draft Bill sufficient?
Regarding Ofcom’s media literacy duties, the ACS believes it would be useful to clarify if the requirement for Ofcom to support education initiatives includes engaging with the different education curriculums across the four nations. There is also a question about how vulnerable users will be prioritised for media literacy education.
 Refuge and Risk: Life Online for Vulnerable Young People, Katz and El Asam, 2021
 Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2020/21, Ofcom
 Engaging in risky online behaviour – prevalence and associated factors: initial findings, Scottish Government, 2021
 Online child grooming crimes in Scotland have increased by a third during coronavirus pandemic - Glasgow Live
 How men and women learn about sex: multi-generational perspectives on insufficient preparedness and prevailing gender norms in Scotland, Patterson et al, 2019
 The relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours, The Behavioural Architects for Government Equalities Office, 2020
 National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland 2021, Scottish Government
 Cyber Strategy 2020, Keeping people safe in the digital world, Police Scotland
 See First Draft definition of disinformation