Written evidence submitted by the BBC (OSB0074)

Summary

  1. The BBC values the opportunity to submit written evidence to the Joint pre-legislative scrutiny Committee’s Call for Evidence on the government’s draft Online Safety Bill, a timely and important intervention. As a novel and complex piece of legislation, we are pleased that the draft Bill is undergoing full scrutiny by the Joint Committee.
     
  2. The BBC is submitting evidence to this inquiry as an organisation that provides world-class, impartial and accurate news and a major provider of internet content and services. We have addressed the areas which are most relevant to the BBC.
     
  3. The UK media ecology is thriving[1] and the industry is rapidly changing, with methods of distributing content – including public service content – fast evolving. For nearly 100 years, the BBC has had a public mission to inform, educate and entertain. For the majority of that time, our services have been focussed on traditional forms of broadcasting – namely television and radio services. The advent of the internet created a powerful new means for us to fulfil our mission – one which we have been at the forefront of embracing, from launching the BBC website in 1997 (whose online services are accessed by 77% of UK adults each month),[2] to blazing a trail with the creation of BBC iPlayer and bringing the concept of catch up and video on-demand services to the UK public at large.

 

  1. Engagement with the BBC remains strong. Crucially, we deliver trusted news to millions in the UK and worldwide – especially in times of crisis where quality, trusted information is critical. Ofcom research shows that 74% of people trust coverage on the BBC website/app.[3]

 

  1. We strongly welcome moves to safeguard users of platforms including increasing protections around very seriously damaging content such as terrorist content and child sexual exploitation and abuse content. As the reach and influence of online services grow, they should expect to be increasingly accountable for their services - albeit not always with exactly the same liability and rules as public service broadcasters (PSBs) like the BBC.

 

  1. We welcome the draft Bill’s proposed proportionate approach in relation to which services are in scope, with certain types of content and services to be exempt where they are already subject to significant regulation including recognised news publishers and PSBs including the BBC.
  2. We also recognise that certain duties are designed to act as safeguards, to make sure that the new rules don't push platforms too far towards takedown and (in effect) censorship. These include a safeguard for news content (including BBC news) – a duty on the biggest platforms to protect specifically journalistic content, although not all PSB content. Platforms must also have expedited complaints procedures for content creators.
     
  3. However, much of the crucial detail will be set out in guidance by Ofcom in codes once the Bill is passed – leaving a lot of uncertainty about how the rules will operate in practice and considerable scope for these rules to change without ministerial or parliamentary scrutiny.

Changing media landscape

  1. Audiences value the role that PSBs play in connecting communities, providing trusted, independent news, and delivering entertainment. Ofcom research shows that over seven in ten users see the BBC as high quality, accurate, and trustworthy.[4] The pandemic demonstrated the importance of institutions like the BBC in a time of crisis as the most trusted news provider.[5]

 

  1. While BBC One remains the most-used news source across any platform,[6] methods of distributing content are fast evolving. During the pandemic, we have continued to deliver news and other content through our main social media accounts as a way of engaging audiences with trusted information – receiving record usage of social media accounts.[7] We share content across social media sites multiple times a day, bespoke to each platform.

Free expression and PSB content

  1. We believe that targeted protections should mean that the BBC – and other UK PSBs – can continue to be available to all, across digital platforms, so that our content can inform, educate and entertain online. This includes using third party platforms to distribute BBC news clips.

 

  1. We agree with the aims of respecting free speech and privacy rights for all users and we welcome the aim of introducing safeguards to protect important news content including BBC content, to make sure that the new rules don’t push platforms too far towards practices that could lead to unwarranted censorship of content including PSB content, such as poorly designed filters or takedown mechanisms. The draft Bill goes some distance towards safeguarding news and PSB content, for example it includes:
     

 

  1. Ofcom codes will set out how platforms might fulfil their duties. We would welcome clear statements from Ofcom that: PSB content will not raise an issue under the specified areas of harm if it has already been compiled for broadcast; platforms’ systems should be able to recognise PSB content so it is treated appropriately (e.g. by putting it on an ‘allow list’ that defaults to protecting and promoting that content); there should be special routes for PSBs to report misuse of PSB brand or content, given PSBs trusted role in providing information to audiences.

Definition of harms

  1. We note some platforms will have duties in relation to the risks to adults from ‘lawful but harmful content, which includes setting out what harms they think may arise, having a reporting service for harmful content and other procedures.
     
  2. The draft Bill sets out a broad definition of harmful content as having a significant adverse physical or psychological impact’ on the average adult, with more detail to come from Ofcom guidance. A very wide or subjective definition could be used as a ground for in-scope services to stifle legitimate comment or coverage, because it could be widely construed by platforms who have been criticised for overzealous takedown practices (e.g. in 2016 when Facebook censored the historic Vietnam war ‘napalm girl’ photo, featuring a naked girl). More specific definitions could help to provide assurance that new rules won’t be used to stifle legitimate content.

 

September 2021


[1] The creative industries are growing faster than the economy overall – at a rate of 5.6% compared to 1.4% for the whole UK economy, DCMS Economic Estimates, 2019

[2] ComScore MMX Multi-Platform, ONS. BBC Annual Report and Accounts, p27 https://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/reports/annualreport/2018-19.pdf  

[3] 2021 Ofcom News Consumption Survey

[4] 2021 Ofcom News Consumption Survey. The BBC website/app was found by users to be high quality (79%), accurate (75%), and trustworthy (74%)

[5] Ipsos MORI, 1,013 UK adults 18+ who follow the news, Mar 2020

[6] 2021 Ofcom News Consumption Survey

[7] The BBC News YouTube account saw 38 million video views in the last week of March 2020. The BBC News UK Twitter account saw record numbers of engagements, with 5.6 million in the first week of April 2020