Written evidence submitted by Schillings International LLP (OSB0183)
To: UK Parliament
From: Schillings International LLP
Date: 22nd September 2021
Re: Draft Online Safety Bill
Schillings is a multi-disciplinary law firm who specialise in helping people protect their privacy. Our clients tend to be successful individuals who can afford the best representation. Even with such advantages, it can be difficult to mitigate online threats and have harmful content removed from the internet. We really worry about the experience for those who do not have extensive resources, particularly children.
Whilst we welcome the Online Safety Bill, we have serious concerns that the way it is drafted undermines the Government’s commitment to “make the UK the safest place in the world to go online.” Innovation is crucial for a thriving economy and should be supported by the government, but the Bill is being brought forward in our view because the tech sector has failed to put safety before profit.
Based on our day to day experience of dealing with threats to privacy and reputation, we have two main concerns about the application of the Online Safety Bill.
1.1 Schedule 1(4) of the Online Safety Bill provides an exemption for “internal business services.” This means that platforms such as file-transfer services, corporate email services, cyber lockers and webhosts are not included in the scope of the Bill.
1.2 All of the categories of harmful content identified in the Bill are widespread on these excluded platforms and exempting these services significantly undermines the Bill and its ability to achieve its stated purpose.
1.3 In particular, this undermines the Bill’s stated aims of addressing illegal and harmful content online and protecting children from child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) content. For example, under the current draft Bill, most of the largest pornography websites are already be outside of the Bill’s scope or could easily put themselves out of its scope.
1.4 By the government’s own assessment, only 3% of UK businesses will actually fall inside the scope of the Bill. In exempting these services, the government provides a ready loophole for which many online platforms to escape accountability.
1.5 The exclusion of Webhosts is of particular concern as they play a significant and functional role in enabling online activity and the publication online material. Excluding webhosts from the Bill should be reconsidered by the government. In our experience with malicious content online, anonymous actors often hide behind webhosts and the webhost is the party that we end up dealing with.
1.6 We have seen on numerous occasions that webhosts have the ability to manage and limit the content on the websites that they provide hosting services to and, if they are going make a profit by providing a platform and protecting the secrecy of their users, they should have the responsibility to comply with the duty of the care and ensure systems are in place to prevent harm on their platforms; particularly as they are profiting from the websites and content that they host. In the time it takes to issue and follow up on a takedown notice, considerable harm has already occurred.
1.7 The government has provided little explanation for its decision to exclude such services from the scope of the Bill. Given the key role that these services play in the existence of harmful content online, without clear and cognizable reasons being provided, this exemption should be removed or narrowed.
2.1 The current draft of the Bill exempts ‘recognised news publishers.’
2.2 Press freedom is a foundational right of our democracy and it is imperative that it is protected. With this right comes the responsibility to be fair, accurate and impartial.
2.3 It is essential that publishers and media outlets are properly regulated to ensure that they are meeting this responsibility and to provide the public /news subjects with recourse to protect their rights.
2.4 In order to fulfil the purpose of the Bill, whilst also preserving press freedom, ‘news publishers’ should only be exempt if they are subject to other recognised independent standards and regulation to ensure accountability. ‘News publishers’ that are not subject to another form of regulation or regulatory body should not be exempt from the Bill.
2.5 The definition of ‘recognised news publisher’ is too broad and needs to be narrowed to take into account the expansive usage of the term journalism and news publisher online, and the fact that non-mainstream news publishers are already less accountable.
2.6 A vast number of supposed ‘news publishers’ online have no publishing standards, no code of conduct, no regulation and make no attempt to verify anything that they publish or ensure that information that they publish is fair, accurate and impartial.
2.7 In our experience these publishers are statistically more likely to contribute to the spread of misinformation – a significant online harm.
2.8 This exemption in the current form will continue to allow them to escape scrutiny and accountability and will provide their harmful misinformation and “fake” news with the Bill’s stamp of approval
2.9 In addition, in our experience dealing with harmful online content, a substantial amount of harmful, harassing and defamatory content is in the comments section of news publishers’ articles. It is currently difficult to address the harm being caused by these comments.
2.10 Comments are not output content of the news publishers; they are third party user generated content and should not be included in any exception.
2.11 It is not complicated to include this type of third-party user content along with the other types covered by the Bill and it is a simple matter for media websites to monitor and manage user comments on their own websites.
2.12 A balance needs to be struck between retaining press freedom and the freedom to post and share comments on published content whilst safeguarding users from harmful content and ensuring accountability and the availability of complaints methods.
22 SEPTEMBER 2021
28 September 2021