Finally, I refer to the very good discussion we have had about Amendment 186A, which was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. Like many people who received his initial circulation of his draft amendment, I was struck by why on earth I had not thought of that myself. It is a good and obvious move that we should think a little more about. It probably needs a lot more thought about the concerns about the unintended consequences that might arise from it before we move forward on it, and I take the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, about that, but I hope that the Minister will respond positively to it and that it is perhaps something we can pick up in future Bills.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, let me add to this miscellany by speaking to the government amendments that stand in my name as part of this group. The first is Amendment 288A, which we mentioned on the first group of amendments on Report because it relates to the new introductory clause, Clause 1, and responds to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. I am very happy to say again that the Government recognise that people with multiple and combined characteristics suffer disproportionately online and are often at greater risk of harm. This amendment therefore adds a provision in the new interpretation clause, Clause 1, to put beyond doubt that all the references to people with “a certain characteristic” throughout the Bill include people with a combination of characteristics. We had a good debate about the Interpretation Act 1978, which sets that out, but we are happy to set it out clearly here.

In his Amendment 186A, my noble friend Lord Moylan seeks to clarify a broader issue relating to consumer rights and online platforms. He got some general support—certainly gratitude—for raising this issue, although there was a bit of a Committee-style airing of it and a mixture of views on whether this is the right way or the right place. The amendment seeks to make it clear that certain protections for consumers in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 apply when people use online services and do not pay for them but rather give up their personal data in exchange. The Government are aware that the application of the law in that area is not always clear in relation to free digital services and, like many noble Lords, express our gratitude to my noble friend for highlighting the issue through his amendment.

We do not think that the Bill is the right vehicle for attempting to provide clarification on this point, however. We share some of the cautions that the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, raised and agree with my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe that this is part of a broader question about consumer rights online beyond the services with which the Bill is principally concerned. It could be preferable that the principle that my noble friend Lord Moylan seeks to establish through his amendment should apply more widely than merely to category 1 services regulated under the Bill. I assure him that the Bill will create a number of duties on providers which will benefit users and clarify that they have existing rights of action in the courts. We discussed these new protections in depth in Committee and earlier on Report. He drew attention to Clause 65(1), which puts a requirement on all services, not just category 1 services, to include clear and accessible provisions in their terms of service informing users about their right to bring a claim for breach of contract. Therefore, while we are grateful, we agree with noble Lords who suggested that this is a debate for another day and another Bill.

Amendment 191A from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, would require Ofcom to issue guidance for coroners and procurators fiscal to aid them in submitting requests to Ofcom to exercise its power to obtain information from providers about the use of a service by a deceased child. While I am sympathetic to her intention, I do not think that her amendment is the right answer. It would be inappropriate for an agency of the Executive to issue guidance to a branch of the judiciary. As I explained in Committee, it is for the Chief Coroner to provide detailed guidance to coroners. This is written to assist coroners with the law and their legal duties and to provide commentary and advice on policy and practice.

The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness cuts across the role of the Chief Coroner and risks compromising the judicial independence of the coroner, as set out in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. As she is aware, the Chief Coroner has agreed to consider issuing guidance to coroners on social media and to consider the issues covered in the Bill. He has also agreed to explore whether coroners would benefit from additional training, with the offer of consultation with experts including Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office. I suggest that the better approach would be for Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office to support the Chief Coroner in his consideration of these issues where he would find that helpful.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Allan, that coroners must have access to online safety expertise given the technical and fast-moving nature of this sector. As we have discussed previously, Amendment 273 gives Ofcom a power to produce a report dealing with matters relevant to an investigation or inquest following a request from a coroner which will provide that expertise. I hope that this reassures the noble Baroness.

Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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I understand the report on a specific death, which is very welcome and part of the regime as we all see it. The very long list of things that the coroner may not know that they do not know, as I set out in the amendment, is the issue which I and other noble Lords are concerned about. If the Government could find a way to make that possible, I would be very grateful.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We are keen to ensure that coroners have access to the information and expertise that they need, while respecting the independence of the judicial process to decide what they do not know and would like to know more about and the role of the Chief Coroner there. It is a point that I have discussed a lot with the noble Baroness and with my noble friend Lady Newlove in her former role as Victims’ Commissioner. I am very happy to continue doing so because it is important that there is access to that.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, spoke to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, about supposedly gendered language in relation to Clauses 141 and 157. As I made clear in Committee, I appreciate the intention—as does Lady Deben—of making clear that a person of either sex can perform the role of chairman, just as they can perform the role of ombudsman. We have discussed in Committee the semantic point there. The Government have used “chairman” here to be consistent with terminology in the Office of Communications Act 2002. I appreciate that this predates the Written Ministerial Statement which the noble Lord cited, but that itself made clear that the Government at the time recognised that in practice, parliamentary counsel would need to adopt a flexible approach to this change—for example, in at least some of the cases where existing legislation originally drafted in the former style is being amended.

The noble Lord may be aware of a further Written Ministerial Statement, made on 23 May last year, following our debates on gendered language on another Bill, when the then Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons said that the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel would update its drafting guidance in light of that. That guidance is still forthcoming. However, importantly, the term here will have no bearing on Ofcom’s decision-making on who would chair the advisory committees. It must establish that this could indeed be a person of either sex.

Amendment 253 seeks to enable co-operation, particularly via information-sharing, between Ofcom and other regulators within the UK. I reassure noble Lords that Section 393 of the Communications Act 2003 already includes provisions for sharing information between Ofcom and other regulators in the UK.

As has been noted, Ofcom already co-operates effectively with other domestic regulators. That has been strengthened by the establishment of the Digital Regulation Co-operation Forum. By promoting greater coherence, the forum helps to resolve potential tensions, offering clarity for people and the industry. It ensures collaborative work across areas of common interest to address complex problems. Its outputs have already delivered real and wide-ranging impacts, including landmark policy statements clarifying the interactions between digital regulatory regimes, research into cross-cutting issues, and horizon-scanning activities on new regulatory challenges. We will continue to assess how best to support collaboration between digital regulators and to ensure that their approaches are joined up. We therefore do not think that Amendment 253 is necessary.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister has not stated that there is a duty to collaborate. Is he saying that that is, in fact, the case in practice?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, there is a duty, and the law should be followed. I am not sure whether the noble Lord is suggesting that it is not—

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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Is there a duty to collaborate between regulators?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am not sure that I follow the noble Lord’s question, but perhaps—

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister is saying that, in practice, there is a kind of collaboration between regulators and that there is a power under the Communications Act, but is he saying that there is any kind of duty on regulators to collaborate?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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If I may, I will write to the noble Lord setting that out; he has lost me with his question. We believe, as I think he said, that the forum has added to the collaboration in this important area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, raised important questions about avatars and virtual characters. The Bill broadly defines “content” as

“anything communicated by means of an internet service”,

meaning that it already captures the various ways through which users may encounter content. In the metaverse, this could therefore include things such as avatars or characters created by users. As part of the user-to-user services’ risk assessments, providers will be required to consider more than the risk in relation to user-generated content, including aspects such as how the design and operation of their services, including functionality and how the service is used, might increase the risk of harm to children and the presence of illegal content. A user-to-user service will need to consider any feature which enables interaction of any description between users of the service when carrying out its risk assessments.

The Bill is focused on user-to-user and search services, as there is significant evidence to support the case for regulation based on the risk of harm to users and the current lack of regulatory and other accountability in this area. Hosting, sharing and the discovery of user-generated content and activity give rise to a range of online harms, which is why we have focused on those services. The Bill does not regulate content published by user-to-user service providers themselves; instead, providers are already liable for the content that they publish on their services themselves, and the criminal law is the most appropriate mechanism for dealing with services which publish illegal provider content.

The noble Baroness’s Amendment 275A seeks to require Ofcom to produce a wide-ranging report of behaviour facilitated by emerging technologies. As we discussed in Committee, the Government of course agree that Ofcom needs continually to assess future risks and the capacity of emerging technologies to cause harm. That is why the Bill already contains provisions which allow it to carry out broad horizon scanning, such as its extensive powers to gather information, to commission skilled persons’ reports and to require providers to produce transparency reports. Ofcom has already indicated that it plans to research emerging technologies, and the Bill will require it to update its risk assessments, risk profiles and codes of practice with the outcomes of this research where relevant.

As we touched on in Committee, Clause 56 requires regular reviews by Ofcom into the incidence of content that is harmful to children, and whether there should be changes to regulations setting out the kinds of content that are harmful to children. In addition, Clause 143 mandates that Ofcom should investigate users’ experience of regulated services, which are likely to cover user interactions in virtual spaces, such as the metaverse and those involving content generated by artificial intelligence.

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Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB)
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I am most grateful to the Minister; perhaps I could just check something he said. There was a great deal of detail and I was trying to capture it. On the question of harms to children, we all understand that the harms to children are viewed more extensively than harms to others, but I wondered: what counts as unregulated services? The Minister was talking about regulated services. What happens if there is machine-generated content which is not generated by any user but by some random codes that are developed and then randomly incite problematic behaviours?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am happy to provide further detail in writing and to reiterate the points I have made as it is rather technical. Content that is published by providers of user-to-user services themselves is not regulated by the Bill because providers are liable for the content they publish on the services themselves. Of course, that does not apply to pornography, which we know poses a particular risk to children online and is regulated through Part 5 of the Bill. I will set out in writing, I hope more clearly, for the noble Baroness what is in scope to reassure her about the way the Bill addresses the harms that she has rightly raised.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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Will the Minister copy other Members in?

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Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, this has indeed been a wide-ranging and miscellaneous debate. I hope that since we are considering the Bill on Report noble Lords will forgive me if I do not endeavour to summarise all the different speeches and confine myself to one or two points.

The first is to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her support for my amendment but also to say that having heard her argument in favour of her Amendment 191A, I think the difference between us is entirely semantic. Had she worded it so as to say that Ofcom should be under a duty to offer advice to the Chief Coroner, as opposed to guidance to coroners, I would have been very much happier with it. Guidance issued under statute has to carry very considerable weight and, as my noble friend the Minister said, there is a real danger in that case of an arm of the Executive, if you like, or a creature of Parliament—however one wants to regard Ofcom—interfering in the independence of the judiciary. Had she said “advice to the Chief Coroner and whoever is the appropriate officer in Scotland”, that would have been something I could have given wholehearted support to. I hope she will forgive me for raising that quibble at the outset, but I think it is a quibble rather than a substantial disagreement.

On my own amendment, I simply say that I am grateful to my noble friend for the brevity and economy with which he disposed of it. He was of course assisted in that by the remarks and arguments made by many other noble Lords in the House as they expressed their support for it in principle.

I think there is a degree of confusion about what the Bill is doing. There seemed to be a sense that somehow the amendment was giving individuals the right to bring actions in the courts against providers, but of course that already happens because that right exists and is enshrined in Article 65. All the amendment would do is give some balance so that consumers actually had some protections in what is normally, in essence, an unequal contest, which is trying to ensure that a large company enforces the terms and contracts that it has written.

In particular, my amendment would give, as I think noble Lords know, the right to demand repeat performance—that is, in essence, the right to put things right, not monetary compensation—and it would frustrate any attempts by providers, in drafting their own terms and conditions, to limit their own liability. That is of course what they seek to do but the Consumer Rights Act frustrates them in their ability to do so.

We will say no more about that for now. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

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Moved by
187: Clause 65, page 62, line 18, leave out from “service” to “down” in line 20 and insert “indicate (in whatever words) that the presence of a particular kind of regulated user-generated content is prohibited on the service, the provider takes”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes a change to a provision about what the terms of service of a Category 1 service say. The effect of the change is to cover a wider range of ways in which a term of service might indicate that a certain kind of content is not allowed on the service.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, transparency and accountability are at the heart of the regulatory framework that the Bill seeks to establish. It is vital that Ofcom has the powers it needs to require companies to publish online safety information and to scrutinise their systems and processes, particularly their algorithms. The Government agree about the importance of improving data sharing with independent researchers while recognising the nascent evidence base and the complexities of this issue, which we explored in Committee. We are pleased to be bringing forward a number of amendments to strengthen platforms’ transparency, which confer on Ofcom new powers to assess how providers’ algorithms work, which accelerate the development of the evidence base regarding researchers’ access to information and which require Ofcom to produce guidance on this issue.

Amendment 187 in my name makes changes to Clause 65 on category 1 providers’ duties to create clear and accessible terms of service and apply them consistently and transparently. The amendment tightens the clause to ensure that all the providers’ terms through which they might indicate that a certain kind of content is not allowed on its service are captured by these duties.

Amendment 252G is a drafting change, removing a redundant paragraph from the Bill in relation to exceptions to the legislative definition of an enforceable requirement in Schedule 12.

In relation to transparency, government Amendments 195, 196, 198 and 199 expand the types of information that Ofcom can require category 1, 2A and 2B providers to publish in their transparency reports. With thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for his engagement on this issue, we are pleased to table these amendments, which will allow Ofcom to require providers to publish information relating to the formulation, development and scope of user-to-user service providers’ terms of service and search service providers’ public statements of policies and procedures. This is in addition to the existing transparency provision regarding their application.

Amendments 196 and 199 would enable Ofcom to require providers to publish more information in relation to algorithms, specifically information about the design and operation of algorithms that affect the display, promotion, restriction, discovery or recommendation of content subject to the duties in the Bill. These changes will enable greater public scrutiny of providers’ terms of service and their algorithms, providing valuable information to users about the platforms that they are using.

As well as publicly holding platforms to account, the regulator must be able to get under the bonnet and scrutinise the algorithms’ functionalities and the other systems and processes that they use. Empirical tests are a standard method for understanding the performance of an algorithmic system. They involve taking a test data set, running it through an algorithmic system and observing the output. These tests may be relevant for assessing the efficacy and wider impacts of content moderation technology, age-verification systems and recommender systems.

Government Amendments 247A, 250A, 252A, 252B, 252C, 252D, 252E and 252F will ensure that Ofcom has the powers to enable it to direct and observe such tests remotely. This will significantly bolster Ofcom’s ability to assess how a provider’s algorithms work, and therefore to assess its compliance with the duties in the Bill. I understand that certain technology companies have voiced some concerns about these powers, but I reassure your Lordships that they are necessary and proportionate.

The powers will be subject to a number of safeguards. First, they are limited to viewing information. Ofcom will be unable to remotely access or interfere with the service for any other purpose when exercising the power. These tests would be performed offline, meaning that they would not affect the services’ provision or the experience of users. Assessing systems, processes, features and functionalities is the focus of the powers. As such, individual user data and content are unlikely to be the focus of any remote access to view information.

Additionally, the power can be used only where it is proportionate to use in the exercise of Ofcom’s functions—for example, when investigating whether a regulated service has complied with relevant safety duties. A provider would have a right to bring a legal challenge against Ofcom if it considered that a particular exercise of the power was unlawful. Furthermore, Ofcom will be under a legal obligation to ensure that the information gathered from services is protected from disclosure, unless clearly defined exemptions apply.

The Bill contains no restriction on services making the existence and detail of the information notice public. Should a regulated service wish to challenge an information notice served to it by Ofcom, it would be able to do so through judicial review. In addition, the amendments create no restrictions on the use of this power being viewable to members of the public through a request, such as those under the Freedom of Information Act—noting that under Section 393 of the Communications Act, Ofcom will not be able to disclose information it has obtained through its exercise of these powers without the provider’s consent, unless permitted for specific, defined purposes. These powers are necessary and proportionate and will that ensure Ofcom has the tools to understand features and functionalities and the risks associated with them, and therefore the tools to assess companies’ compliance with the Bill.

Finally, I turn to researchers’ access to data. We recognise the valuable work of researchers in improving our collective understanding of the issues we have debated throughout our scrutiny of the Bill. However, we are also aware that we need to develop the evidence base to ensure that any sharing of sensitive information between companies and researchers can be done safely and securely. To this end, we are pleased to table government Amendments 272B, 272C and 272D.

Government Amendment 272B would require Ofcom to publish its report into researcher access to information within 18 months, rather than two years. This report will provide the evidence base for government Amendments 272C and 272D, which would require Ofcom to publish guidance on this issue. This will provide valuable, evidence-based guidance on how to improve access for researchers safely and securely.

That said, we understand the calls for further action in this area. The Government will explore this issue further and report back to your Lordships’ House on whether further measures to support researchers’ access to data are required—and if so, whether they could be implemented through other legislation, such as the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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My Lords, Amendment 247B in my name was triggered by government Amendment 247A, which the Minister just introduced. I want to explain it, because the government amendment is quite late—it has arrived on Report—so we need to look in some detail at what the Government have proposed. The phrasing that has caused so much concern, which the Minister has acknowledged, is that Ofcom will be able to

“remotely access the service provided by the person”.

It is those words—“remotely access”—which are trigger words for anyone who lived through the Snowden disclosures, where everyone was so concerned about remote access by government agencies to precisely the same services we are talking about today: social media services.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions in this group. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, on why we are bringing in some of these powers now, I say that the power to direct and observe algorithms was previously implicit within Ofcom’s information powers and, where a provider has UK premises, under powers of entry, inspection and audit under Schedule 12. However, the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which is set to confer similar powers on the Competition and Markets Authority and its digital markets unit, makes these powers explicit. We wanted to ensure that there was no ambiguity over whether Ofcom had equivalent powers in the light of that. Furthermore, the changes we are making ensure that Ofcom can direct and observe algorithmic assessments even if a provider does not have relevant premises or equipment in the UK.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, for inviting me to re-emphasise points and allay the concerns that have been triggered, as his noble friend Lord Clement-Jones put it. I am happy to set out again a bit of what I said in opening this debate. The powers will be subject to a number of safeguards. First, they are limited to “viewing information”. They can be used only where they are proportionate in the exercise of Ofcom’s functions, and a provider would have the right to bring a legal challenge against Ofcom if it considered that a particular exercise of the power was done unlawfully. Furthermore, Ofcom will be under a legal obligation to ensure that the information gathered from services is protected from disclosure, unless clearly defined exemptions apply.

These are not secret powers, as the noble Lord rightly noted. The Bill contains no restriction on services making the existence and detail of the information notice public. If a regulated service wished to challenge an information notice served to it by Ofcom, it would be able to do so through judicial review. I also mentioned the recourse that people have through existing legislation, such as the Freedom of Information Act, to give them safeguards, noting that, under Section 393 of the Communications Act, Ofcom will not be able to disclose information that it has obtained through its exercise of these powers without the provider’s consent unless that is permitted for specific, defined purposes.

The noble Lord’s Amendment 247B seeks to place further safeguards on Ofcom’s use of its new power to access providers’ systems remotely to observe tests. While I largely agree with the intention behind it, there are already a number of safeguards in place for the use of that power, including in relation to data protection, legally privileged material and the disclosure of information, as I have outlined. Ofcom will not be able to gain remote access simply for exploratory or fishing purposes, and indeed Ofcom expects to have conversations with services about how to provide the information requested.

Furthermore, before exercising the power, Ofcom will be required to issue an information notice specifying the information to be provided, setting out the parameters of access and why Ofcom requires the information, among other things. Following the receipt of an information notice, a notice requiring an inspection or an audit notice, if a company has identified that there is an obvious security risk in Ofcom exercising the power as set out in the notice, it may not be proportionate to do so. As set out in Ofcom’s duties, Ofcom must have regard to the principles under which regulatory activities should be proportionate and targeted only at cases where action is needed.

In line with current practice, we anticipate Ofcom will issue information notice requests in draft form to identify and address any issues, including in relation to security, before the information notice is issued formally. Ofcom will have a legal duty to exercise its remote access powers in a way that is proportionate, ensuring that undue burdens are not placed on businesses. In assessing proportionality in line with this requirement, Ofcom would need to consider the size and resource capacity of a service when choosing the most appropriate way of gathering information, and whether there was a less onerous method of obtaining the necessary information to ensure that the use of this power is proportionate. As I said, the remote access power is limited to “viewing information”. Under this power, Ofcom will be unable to interfere or access the service for any other purpose.

In practice, Ofcom will work with services during the process. It is required to specify, among other things, the information to be provided, which will set the parameters of its access, and why it requires the information, which will explain the link between the information it seeks and the online safety function that it is exercising or deciding whether to exercise.

As noble Lords know, Ofcom must comply with the UK’s data protection law. As we have discussed in relation to other issues, it is required to act compatibly with the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 8 privacy rights. In addition, under Clause 91(7), Ofcom is explicitly prohibited from requiring the provision of legally privileged information. It will also be under a legal obligation to ensure that the information gathered from services is protected from disclosure unless clearly defined exemptions apply, such as those under Section 393(2) of the Communications Act 2003—for example, the carrying out of any of Ofcom’s functions. I hope that provides reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Allan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, who raised these questions.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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I am grateful to the Minister. That was helpful, particularly the description of the process and the fact that drafts have to be issued early on. However, it still leaves open a couple of questions, one of which was very helpfully raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight. We have in Schedule 12 this other set of protections that could be applied. There is a genuine question as to why this has been put in this place and not there.

The second question is to dig a little more into the question of what happens when there is a dispute. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, pointed out that if you have created a backdoor then you have created a backdoor, and it is dangerous. If we end up in a situation where a company believes that what it is being asked to do by Ofcom is fundamentally problematic and would create a security risk, it will not be good enough to open up the backdoor and then have a judicial review. It needs to be able to say no at that stage, yet the Bill says that it could be committing a serious criminal offence by failing to comply with an information notice. We want some more assurances, in some form, about what would happen in a scenario where a company genuinely and sincerely believes that what Ofcom is asking for is inappropriate and/or dangerous and it wants not to have to offer it unless and until its challenge has been looked at, rather than having to offer it and then later judicially review a decision. The damage would already have been done by opening up an inappropriate backdoor.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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A provider would have a right to bring a legal challenge against Ofcom if it considered that a particular exercise of the remote access power was unlawful. I am sure that would be looked at swiftly, but I will write to the noble Lord on the anticipated timelines while that judicial review was pending. Given the serious nature of the issues under consideration, I am sure that would be looked at swiftly. I will write further on that.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I will write on Schedule 12 as well.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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Before the Minister sits down, to quote the way the Minister has operated throughout Report, there is consensus across the House that there are some concerns. The reason why there are concerns outside and inside the House on this particular amendment is that it is not entirely clear that those protections exist, and there are worries. I ask the Minister whether, rather than just writing, it would be possible to take this back to the department, table a late amendment and say, “Look again”. That has been done before. It is certainly not too late: if it was not too late to have this amendment then it is certainly not too late to take it away again and to adopt another amendment that gives some safeguarding. Seriously, it is worth looking again.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I had not quite finished; the noble Baroness was quick to catch me before I sat down. I still have some way to go, but I will certainly take on board all the points that have been made on this group.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked about Schedule 12. I will happily write with further information on that, but Schedule 12 is about UK premises, so it is probably not the appropriate place to deal with this, as we need to be able to access services in other countries. If there is a serious security risk then it would not necessarily be proportionate. I will write to him with further details.

Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so quickly. I think the House is asking him to indicate now that he will go away and look at this issue, perhaps with some of us, and that, if necessary, he would be willing to look at coming back with something at Third Reading. From my understanding of the Companion, I think he needs to say words to that effect to allow him to do so, if that is what he subsequently wants to do at Third Reading.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am very happy to discuss this further with noble Lords, but I will reserve the right, pending that discussion, to decide whether we need to return to this at Third Reading.

Amendments 270 and 272, tabled by my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, to whom I am very grateful for her careful scrutiny of the devolved aspects of the Bill, seek to require Ofcom to include separate analyses of users’ online experiences in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the research about users’ experiences of regulated services and in Ofcom’s transparency reports. While I am sympathetic to her intention—we have corresponded on it, for which I am grateful—it is important that Ofcom has and retains the discretion to prioritise information requests that will best shed light on the experience of users across the UK.

My noble friend and other noble Lords should be reassured that Ofcom has a strong track record of using this discretion to produce data which are representative of people across the whole United Kingdom. Ofcom is committed to reflecting the online experiences of users across the UK and intends, wherever possible, to publish data at a national level. When conducting research, Ofcom seeks to gather views from a representative sample of the United Kingdom and seeks to set quotas that ensure an analysable sample within each of the home nations.

It is also worth noting the provisions in the Communications Act 2003 that require Ofcom to operate offices in each of the nations of the UK, to maintain advisory committees for each, and to ensure their representation on its various boards and panels—and, indeed, on the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, to capture the experiences of children and users of all ages. While we must give Ofcom the discretion it needs to ensure that the framework is flexible and remains future-proofed, I hope that I have reassured my noble friend that her point will indeed be captured, reported on and be able to be scrutinised, not just in this House but across the UK.

Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie Portrait Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie (Con)
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. My premise is that the reason Ofcom reports in a nation-specific way in broadcasting and in communications is because there is a high-level reference in both the Communications Act 2003 and the BBC charter that requires it to do so, because it feeds down into national quotas and so on. There is currently nothing of that equivalence in the Online Safety Bill. Therefore, we are relying on Ofcom’s discretion, whereas in the broadcasting and communications area we have a high-level reference to insisting that there is a breakdown by nation.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We think we can rely on Ofcom’s discretion, and point to its current practice. I hope that will reassure my noble friend that it will set out the information she seeks.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I was about to say that I am very happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about the manner by which consent is given in Clause 53(5)(c), but I think his question is on something else.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I would be grateful if the Minister could repeat that immediately afterwards, when I will listen much harder.

Just to echo what the noble Baroness was saying, may we take it as an expectation that approaches that are signalled in legislation for broadcasting and communications should apply pari passu to the work of Ofcom in relation to the devolved Administrations?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, and we can point to the current actions of Ofcom to show that it is indeed doing this already, even without that legislative stick.

I turn to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Bethell and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on researchers’ access to data. Amendment 237ZA would confer on the Secretary of State a power to make provisions about access to information by researchers. As my noble friend knows, we are sympathetic to the importance of this issue, which is why we have tabled our own amendments in relation to it. However, as my noble friend also knows, in such a complex and sensitive area that we think it is premature to endow the Secretary of State with such broad powers to introduce a new framework. As we touched on in Committee, this is a complex and still nascent area, which is why it is different from the other areas to which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, pointed in his contribution.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, made the point that in other areas where the Minister has agreed to reviews or reports, there are backstop powers; for instance, on app stores. Of course, that was a negotiated settlement, so to speak, but why can the Minister not accede to that in the case of access for researchers, as he has with app stores? Indeed, there is one other example that escapes me, which the Minister has also agreed to.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We touched on the complexity of defining who and what is a researcher and making sure that we do not give rise to bad actors exploiting that. This is a complex area, as we touched on in Committee. As I say, the evidence base here is nascent. It is important first to focus on developing our understanding of the issues to ensure that any power or legislation is fit to address those challenges. Ofcom’s report will not only highlight how platforms can share data with researchers safely but will provide the evidence base for considering any future policy approaches, which we have committed to doing but which I think the noble Lord will agree are worthy of further debate and reflection in Parliament.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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The benefit of having a period of time between the last day of Report on Wednesday and Third Reading is that that gives the Minister, the Bill team and parliamentary counsel the time to reflect on the kind of power that could be devised. The wording could be devised, and I would have thought that six weeks would be quite adequate for that, perhaps in a general way. After all, this is not a power that is immediately going to be used; it is a general power that could be brought into effect by regulation. Surely it is not beyond the wit to devise something suitable.

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Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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Sit down or stand up—I cannot remember.

I wonder whether the department has looked at the DSA and other situations where this is being worked out. I recognise that it takes a period of time, but it is not without some precedent that a pathway should be described.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We do not think that six weeks is enough time for the evidence base to develop sufficiently, our assessment being that to endow the Secretary of State with that power at this point is premature.

Amendment 262AA would require Ofcom to consider whether it is appropriate to require providers to take steps to comply with Ofcom’s researcher access guidance when including a requirement to take steps in a confirmation decision. This would be inappropriate because the researcher access provisions are not enforceable requirements; as such, compliance with them should not be subject to enforcement by the regulator. Furthermore, enforcement action may relate to a wide variety of very important issues, and the steps needed should be sufficient to address a failure to comply with an enforceable requirement. Singling out compliance with researcher access guidance alone risks implying that this will be adequate to address core failures.

Amendment 272AB would require Ofcom to give consideration to whether greater access to data could be achieved through legal requirements or incentives for regulated services. I reassure noble Lords that the scope of Ofcom’s report will already cover how greater access to data could be achieved, including through enforceable requirements on providers.

Amendment 272E would require Ofcom to take a provider’s compliance with Ofcom’s guidance on researcher access to data into account when assessing risks from regulated services and determining whether to take enforcement action and what enforcement action to take. However, we do not believe that this is a relevant factor for consideration of these issues. I hope noble Lords will agree that whether or not a company has enabled researcher access to its data should not be a mitigating factor against Ofcom requiring companies to deal with terrorism or child sexual exploitation or abuse content, for example.

On my noble friend Lord Bethell’s remaining Amendments 272BA, 273A and 273B, the first of these would require Ofcom to publish its report on researchers’ access to information within six months. While six months would not be deliverable given other priorities and the complexity of this issue, the government amendment to which I have spoken would reduce the timelines from two years to 18 months. That recognises the importance of the issue while ensuring that Ofcom can deliver the key priorities in establishing the core parts of the regulatory framework; for example, the illegal content and child safety duties.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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Just on the timescale, one of the issues that we talked about in Committee was the fact that there needs to be some kind of mechanism created, with a code of practice with reference to data protection law and an approving body to approve researchers as suitable to take information; the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, referred to the DSA process, which the European Union has been working on. I hope the Minister can confirm that Ofcom might get moving on establishing that. It is not dependent on there being a report in 18 months; in fact, you need to have it in place when you report in 18 months, which means you need to start building it now. I hope the Minister would want Ofcom, within its existing framework, to be encouraging the creation of that researcher approval body and code of practice, not waiting to start that process in 18 months’ time.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I will continue my train of thought on my noble friend’s amendments, which I hope will cover that and more.

My noble friend’s Amendment 273A would allow Ofcom to appoint approved independent researchers to access information. Again, given the nascent evidence base here, it is important to focus on understanding these issues before we commit to a researcher access framework.

Under the skilled persons provisions, Ofcom will already have the powers to appoint a skilled person to assess compliance with the regulatory framework; that includes the ability to leverage the expertise of independent researchers. My noble friend’s Amendment 273B would require Ofcom to produce a code of practice on access to data by researchers. The government amendments I spoke to earlier will require Ofcom to produce guidance on that issue, which will help to promote information sharing in a safe and secure way.

To the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Allan: yes, Ofcom can start the process and do it quickly. The question here is really about the timeframe in which it does so. As I said in opening, we understand the calls for further action in this area.

I am happy to say to my noble friend Lord Bethell, to whom we are grateful for his work on this and the conversations we have had, that we will explore the issue further and report back on whether further measures to support researchers’ access to data are required and, if so, whether they can be implemented through other legislation, such as the Data Protection and Digital Information (No.2) Bill.

Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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Before the Minister sits down—he has been extremely generous in taking interventions—I want to put on record my understanding of his slightly ambiguous response to Amendment 247A, so that he can correct it if I have got it wrong. My understanding is that he has agreed to go away and reflect on the amendment and that he will have discussions with us about it. Only if he then believes that it is helpful to bring forward an amendment at Third Reading will he do so.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Yes, but I do not want to raise the hopes of the noble Lord or others, with whom I look forward to discussing this matter. I must manage their expectations about whether we will bring anything forward. With that, I beg to move.

Amendment 187 agreed.
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Moved by
189: Clause 67, page 64, line 15, leave out from “65(9),” to “and” in line 16 and insert “indicates (in whatever words) that the presence of content of that kind is prohibited on the service or that users’ access to content of that kind is restricted,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes a change to the definition of “relevant content” which applies for the purposes of Chapter 3 of Part 4 of the Bill (transparency of terms of service etc). The effect of the change is to cover a wider range of ways in which a term of service might indicate that a certain kind of content is not allowed on the service.
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Moved by
190: After Clause 67, insert the following new Clause—
“CHAPTER 3ADECEASED CHILD USERSDisclosure of information about use of service by deceased child users
(1) A provider of a relevant service must make it clear in the terms of service what their policy is about dealing with requests from parents of a deceased child for information about the child’s use of the service.(2) A provider of a relevant service must have a dedicated helpline or section of the service, or some similar means, by which parents can easily find out what they need to do to obtain information and updates in those circumstances, and the terms of service must provide details.(3) A provider of a relevant service must include clear and accessible provisions in the terms of service—(a) specifying the procedure for parents of a deceased child to request information about the child’s use of the service,(b) specifying what evidence (if any) the provider will require about the parent’s identity or relationship to the child, and(c) giving sufficient detail to enable child users and their parents to be reasonably certain about what kinds of information would be disclosed and how information would be disclosed. (4) A provider of a relevant service must respond in a timely manner to requests from parents of a deceased child for information about the child’s use of the service or for updates about the progress of such information requests.(5) A provider of a relevant service must operate a complaints procedure in relation to the service that—(a) allows for complaints to be made by parents of a deceased child who consider that the provider is not complying with a duty set out in any of subsections (1) to (4),(b) provides for appropriate action to be taken by the provider of the service in response to such complaints, and(c) is easy to access, easy to use and transparent.(6) A provider of a relevant service must include in the terms of service provisions which are easily accessible specifying the policies and processes that govern the handling and resolution of such complaints.(7) If a person is the provider of more than one relevant service, the duties set out in this section apply in relation to each such service.(8) The duties set out in this section extend only to the design, operation and use of a service in the United Kingdom, and references in this section to children are to children in the United Kingdom.(9) A “relevant service” means—(a) a Category 1 service (see section 86(10)(a));(b) a Category 2A service (see section 86(10)(b));(c) a Category 2B service (see section 86(10)(c)).(10) In this section “parent”, in relation to a child, includes any person who is not the child’s parent but who—(a) has parental responsibility for the child within the meaning of section 3 of the Children Act 1989 or Article 6 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (S.I. 1995/755 (N.I. 2)), or(b) has parental responsibilities in relation to the child within the meaning of section 1(3) of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.(11) In the application of this section to a Category 2A service, references to the terms of service include references to a publicly available statement.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment imposes new duties on providers of Category 1, 2A and 2B services to have a policy about disclosing information to the parents of deceased child users, and providing details about it in the terms of service or a publicly available statement.
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Moved by
191: After Clause 67, insert the following new Clause—
“OFCOM’s guidance about duties set out in section (Disclosure of information about use of service by deceased child users)
(1) OFCOM must produce guidance for providers of relevant services to assist them in complying with their duties set out in section (Disclosure of information about use of service by deceased child users).(2) OFCOM must publish the guidance (and any revised or replacement guidance).(3) In this section “relevant service” has the meaning given by section (Disclosure of information about use of service by deceased child users).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires OFCOM to give guidance to providers about the new duties imposed by the other Clause proposed after Clause 67 in my name.
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Amendment 191A (to Amendment 191) not moved.
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Moved by
192: Schedule 8, page 212, line 26, leave out “and relevant content” and insert “, relevant content and content to which section 12(2) applies”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment adds a reference to content to which section 12(2) applies (content to which certain user empowerment duties apply) to paragraph 1 of the transparency reporting Schedule, which allows OFCOM to require providers of user-to-user services to include information in their transparency reports about the incidence of content.
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Moved by
205: Clause 70, page 66, line 42, leave out subsection (2)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment to Clause 211 in my name adding a definition of “pornographic content” to that Clause.
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Moved by
210: Clause 72, page 68, line 18, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) A duty to ensure, by the use of age verification or age estimation (or both), that children are not normally able to encounter content that is regulated provider pornographic content in relation to the service.(2A) The age verification or age estimation must be of such a kind, and used in such a way, that it is highly effective at correctly determining whether or not a particular user is a child.” Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires providers within scope of Part 5 to use highly effective age verification or age estimation (or both) to comply with the duty in Clause 72(2) (preventing children from encountering provider pornographic content).
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Moved by
215: Clause 73, page 68, line 36, leave out from “of” to end of line 37 and insert “kinds and uses of age verification and age estimation that are, or are not, highly effective at correctly determining whether or not a particular user is a child,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires OFCOM’s guidance about the duty in Clause 72(2) to give examples of kinds and uses of age verification and age estimation that are, or are not, highly effective at determining whether or not a user is a child.
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Moved by
216: Clause 73, page 68, line 43, at end insert—
“(2A) The guidance may elaborate on the following principles governing the use of age verification or age estimation for the purpose of compliance with the duty set out in section 72(2)—(a) the principle that age verification or age estimation should be easy to use;(b) the principle that age verification or age estimation should work effectively for all users regardless of their characteristics or whether they are members of a certain group; (c) the principle of interoperability between different kinds of age verification or age estimation.(2B) The guidance may refer to industry or technical standards for age verification or age estimation (where they exist).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment sets out principles about age verification or age estimation, which are relevant to OFCOM’s guidance to providers about their duty in Clause 72(2).
Amendment 217 (to Amendment 216) not moved.
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Moved by
218B: Clause 158, page 139, line 5, leave out “duty” and insert “duties”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the new Clause proposed to be inserted after Clause 149 in my name expanding OFCOM’s duties to promote media literacy in relation to regulated user-to-user and search services.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, the amendments in this group relate to provisions for media literacy in the Bill and Ofcom’s existing duty on media literacy under Section 11 of the Communications Act 2003. I am grateful to noble Lords from across your Lordships’ House for the views they have shared on this matter, which have been invaluable in helping us draft the amendments.

Media literacy remains a key priority in our work to tackle online harms; it is essential not only to keep people safe online but for them to understand how to make informed decisions which enhance their experience of the internet. Extensive work is currently being undertaken in this area. Under Ofcom’s existing duty, the regulator has initiated pilot work to promote media literacy. It is also developing best practice principles for platform-based media literacy measures and has published guidance on how to evaluate media literacy programmes.

While we believe that the Communications Act provides Ofcom with sufficient powers to undertake an ambitious programme of media literacy activity, we have listened to the concerns raised by noble Lords and understand the desire to ensure that Ofcom is given media literacy objectives which are fit for the digital age. We have therefore tabled the following amendments seeking to update Ofcom’s statutory duty to promote media literacy, in so far as it relates to regulated services.

Amendment 274B provides new objectives for Ofcom to meet in discharging its duty. The first objective requires Ofcom to take steps to increase the public’s awareness and understanding of how they can keep themselves and others safe when using regulated services, including building the public’s understanding of the nature and impact of harmful content online, such as disinformation and misinformation. To meet that objective, Ofcom will need to carry out, commission or encourage the delivery of activities and initiatives which enhance users’ media literacy in these ways.

It is important to note that, when fulfilling this new objective, Ofcom will need to increase the public’s awareness of the ways in which they can protect groups that disproportionately face harm online, such as women and girls. The updated duty will also compel Ofcom to encourage the development and use of technologies and systems that support users of regulated services to protect themselves and others. Ofcom will be required to publish a statement recommending ways in which others, including platforms, can take action to support their users’ media literacy.

Amendment 274C places a new requirement on Ofcom to publish a strategy setting out how it will fulfil its media literacy functions under Section 11, including the new objectives. Ofcom will be required to update this strategy every three years and report on progress made against it annually to provide assurance that it is fulfilling its duty appropriately. These reports will be supported by the post-implementation review of the Bill, which covers Ofcom’s media literacy duty in so far as it relates to regulated services. This will provide a reasonable point at which to establish the impact of Ofcom’s work, having given it time to take effect.

I am confident that, through this updated duty, Ofcom will be empowered to ensure that internet users become more engaged with media literacy and, as a result, are safer online. I hope that these amendments will find support from across your Lordships’ House, and I beg to move.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, I welcome this proposed new clause on media literacy and support the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Knight of Weymouth. I will briefly press the Minister on two points. First, proposed new subsection (1C) sets out how Ofcom must perform its duty under proposed new subsection (1A), but it does not explicitly require Ofcom to work in partnership with existing bodies already engaged in and expert in provision of these kinds of activities. The potential for Ofcom to commission is explicit, but this implies quite a top-down relationship, not a collaboration that builds on best practice, enables scale-up where appropriate and generally avoids reinventing wheels. It seems like a wasted opportunity to fast-track delivery of effective programmes through partnership.

My second concern is that there is no explicit requirement to consider the distinct needs of specific user communities. In particular, I share the concerns of disability campaigners and charities that media literacy activities and initiatives need to take into account the needs of people with learning disabilities, autism and mental capacity issues, both in how activities are shaped and in how they are communicated. This is a group of people who have a great need to go online and engage, but we also know that they are at greater risk online. Thinking about how media literacy can be promoted, particularly among learning disability communities, is really important.

The Minister might respond by saying that Ofcom is already covered by the public sector equality duty and so is already obliged to consider the needs of people with protected characteristics when designing and implementing policies. But the unfortunate truth is that the concerns of the learning disability community are an afterthought in legislation compared with other disabilities, which are already an afterthought. The Petitions Committee in the other place, in its report on online abuse and the experience of disabled people, noted that there are multiple disabled people around the country with the skills and experience to advise government and its bodies but that there is a general unwillingness to engage directly with them. They are often described as hard to reach, which is kind of ironic because in fact most of these people use multiple services and so are very easy to reach, because they are on lots of databases and in contact with government bodies all the time.

The Minister may also point out that Ofcom’s duties in the Communications Act require it to maintain an advisory committee on elderly and disabled persons that includes

“persons who are familiar with the needs of persons with disabilities”.

But referring to an advisory committee is not the same as consulting people with disabilities, both physical and mental, and it is especially important to consult directly with people who may have difficulty understanding what is being proposed. Talking to people directly, rather than through an advisory committee, is very much the goal.

Unlike the draft Bill, which had media literacy as a stand-alone clause, the intention in this iteration is to deal with the issue by amending the Communications Act. It may be that in the web of interactions between those two pieces of legislation, my concerns can be set to rest. But I would find it very helpful if the Minister could confirm today that the intention is that media literacy programmes will be developed in partnership with—and build on best practice of—those organisations already delivering in this space and that the organisations Ofcom collaborates with will be fully inclusive of all communities, including those with disabilities and learning disabilities. Only in this way can we be confident that media literacy programmes will meet their needs effectively, both in content and in how they are communicated.

Finally, can the Minister confirm whether Ofcom considers people with lived experience of disability as subject matter experts on disability for the purpose of fulfilling its consultation duties? I asked this question during one of the helpful briefing sessions during the Bill’s progress earlier this year, but I did not get an adequate answer. Can the Minister clarify that for the House today?

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Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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My Lords, the Government have moved on this issue, and I very much welcome that. I am grateful to the Minister for listening and for the fact that we now have Section 11 of the Communications Act being brought into the digital age through the Government’s Amendments 274B and 274C. The public can now expect to be informed and educated about content-related harms, reliability and accuracy; technology companies will have to play their part; and Ofcom will have to regularly report on progress, and will commission and partner with others to fulfil those duties. That is great progress.

The importance of this was underscored at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council just two weeks. Nada Al-Nashif, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights in an opening statement said that media and digital literacy empowered individuals and

“should be considered an integral part of education efforts”.

Tawfik Jelassi, the assistant director-general of UNESCO, in a statement attached to that meeting, said that

“media and information literacy was essential for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression”—

I put that in to please the noble Baroness, Lady Fox—and

“enabled access to diverse information, cultivated critical thinking, facilitated active engagement in public discourse, combatted misinformation, and safeguarded privacy and security, while respecting the rights of others”.

If only the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, was in his place to hear me use the word privacy. He continued:

“Together, the international community could ensure that media and information literacy became an integral part of everyone’s lives, empowering all to think critically, promote digital well-being, and foster a more inclusive and responsible global digital community”.


I thought those were great words, summarising why we needed to do this.

I am grateful to Members on all sides of the House for the work that they have done on media literacy. Part of repeating those remarks was that this is so much more about empowerment than it is about loading safety on to individuals, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, rightly said in her comments.

Nevertheless, we want the Minister to reflect on a couple of tweaks. Amendment 269C in my name is around an advisory committee being set up within six months and in its first report assessing the need for a code on misinformation. I have a concern that, as the regime that we are putting in place with this Bill comes into place and causes some of the harmful content that people find engaging to be suppressed, the algorithms will go to something else that is engaging, and that something else is likely to be misinformation and disinformation. I have a fear that that will become a growing problem that the regulator will need to be able to address, which is why it should be looking at this early.

Incidentally, that is why the regulator should also look at provenance, as in Amendment 269AA from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. It was tempting in listening to him to see whether there was an AI tool that could trawl across all the comments that he has made during the deliberations on this Bill to see whether he has quoted the whole of the joint report—but that is a distraction.

My Amendment 269D goes to the need for media literacy on systems, processes and business models, not just on content. Time and again, we have emphasised the need for this Bill to be as much about systems as content. There are contexts where individual, relatively benign pieces of content can magnify if part of a torrent that then creates harm. The Mental Health Foundation has written to many of us to make this point. In the same way that the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, asked about ensuring that those with disability have their own authentic voice heard as these media literacy responsibilities are played out, so the Mental Health Foundation wanted the same kind of involvement from young people; I agree with both. Please can we have some reassurance that this will be very much part of the literacy duties on Ofcom and the obligations it places on service providers?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their comments, and for the recognition from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, of the changes that we have made. I am particularly grateful to him for having raised media literacy throughout our scrutiny of this Bill.

His Amendments 269C and 269D seek to set a date by which the establishment of the advisory committee on misinformation and disinformation must take place and to set requirements for its first report. Ofcom recognises the valuable role that the committee will play in providing advice in relation to its duties on misinformation and disinformation, and has assured us that it will aim to establish the committee as soon as is reasonably possible, in recognition of the threats posed by misinformation and disinformation online.

Given the valuable role of the advisory committee, Ofcom has stressed how crucial it will be to have appropriate time to appoint the best possible committee. Seeking to prescribe a timeframe for its implementation risks impeding Ofcom’s ability to run the thorough and transparent recruitment process that I am sure all noble Lords want and to appoint the most appropriate and expert members. It would also not be appropriate for the Bill to be overly prescriptive on the role of the committee, including with regard to its first report, in order for it to maintain the requisite independence and flexibility to give us the advice that we want.

Amendment 269AA from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seeks to add advice on content provenance to the duties of the advisory committee. The new media literacy amendments, which update Ofcom’s media literacy duties, already include a requirement for Ofcom to take steps to help users establish the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of content found on regulated services. Ofcom will have duties and mechanisms to be able to advise platforms on how they can help users to understand whether content is authentic; for example, by promoting tools that assist them to establish the provenance of content, where appropriate. The new media literacy duties will require Ofcom to take tangible steps to prioritise the public’s awareness of and resilience to misinformation and disinformation online. That may include enabling users to establish the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of content, but the new duties will not remove content online; I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on that.

The advisory committee is already required under Clause 141(4)(c) to advise Ofcom on its exercise of its media literacy functions, including its new duties relating to content authenticity. The Bill does not stipulate what tools service providers should use to fulfil their duties, but Ofcom will have the ability to recommend in its codes of practice that companies use tools such as provenance technologies to identify manipulated media which constitute illegal content or content that is harmful to children, where appropriate. Ofcom is also required to take steps to encourage the development and use of technologies that provide users with further context about content that they encounter online. That could include technologies that support users to establish content provenance. I am happy to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the advisory committee will already be required to advise on the issues that he has raised in his amendment.

On media literacy more broadly, Ofcom retains its overall statutory duty to promote media literacy, which remains broad and non-prescriptive. The new duties in this Bill, however, are focused specifically on harm; that is because the of nature of the Bill, which seeks to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online and is necessarily focused on tackling harms. To ensure that Ofcom succeeds in the delivery of these new specific duties with regard to regulated services, it is necessary that the regulator has a clearly defined scope. Broadening the duties would risk overburdening Ofcom by making its priorities less clear.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull—who has been translated to the Woolsack while we have been debating this group—raised media literacy for more vulnerable users. Under Ofcom’s existing media literacy programme, it is already delivering initiatives to support a range of users, including those who are more vulnerable online, such as people with special educational needs and people with disabilities. I am happy to reassure her that, in delivering this work, Ofcom is already working not just with expert groups including Mencap but with people with direct personal experiences of living with disabilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised Ofsted. Effective regulatory co-ordination is essential for addressing the crosscutting opportunities and challenges posed by digital technologies and services. Ofsted will continue to engage with Ofcom through its existing mechanisms, including engagement led by its independent policy team and those held with Ofcom’s online safety policy director. In addition to that, Ofsted is considering mechanisms through which it can work more closely with Ofcom where appropriate. These include sharing insights from inspections in an anonymised form, which could entail reviews of its inspection bases and focus groups with inspectors, on areas of particular concern to Ofcom. Ofsted is committed to working with Ofcom’s policy teams to work these plans up in more detail.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, could I ask the Minister a question? He has put his finger on one of the most important aspects of this Bill: how it will integrate with the Department for Education and all its responsibilities for schools. Again, talking from long experience, one of the worries is the silo mentality in Whitehall, which is quite often strongest in the Department for Education. Some real effort will be needed to make sure there is a crossover from the powers that Ofcom has to what happens in the classroom.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I hope what I have said about the way that Ofsted and Ofcom are working together gives the noble Lord some reassurance. He is right, and it is not just in relation to the Department for Education. In my own department, we have discussed in previous debates on media literacy the importance of critical thinking, equipping people with the sceptical, quizzical, analytic skills they need—which art, history and English literature do as well. The provisions in this Bill focus on reducing harm because the Bill is focused on making the UK the safest place to be online, but he is right that media literacy work more broadly touches on a number of government departments.

Amendment 274BA would require Ofcom to promote an understanding of how regulated services’ business models operate, how they use personal data and the operation of their algorithmic systems and processes. We believe that Ofcom’s existing duty under the Communications Act already ensures that the regulator can cover these aspects in its media literacy activities. The duty requires Ofcom to build public awareness of the processes by which material on regulated services is selected or made available. This enables Ofcom to address the platform features specified in this amendment.

The Government’s amendments include extensive new objectives for Ofcom, which apply to harmful ways in which a service is used as well as harmful content. We believe it important not to add further to this duty when the outcomes can already be achieved through the existing duty. We do not wish to limit, by implication, Ofcom’s media literacy duties in relation to other, non-regulated services.

We also judge that the noble Lord’s amendment carries a risk of confusing the remits of Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office. UK data protection law already confers a right for people to be informed about how their personal data are being used, making this aspect of the amendment superfluous.

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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I do not believe that the Minister has dealt with the minimum standards issue.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I do not think that the noble Lord was listening to that point, but I did.

Amendment 218B agreed.
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The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, made a very good point in our last session. When I try to assess this, I understand that the Secretary of State is elected and that Ofcom is an unelected regulator, so in many ways it is more democratic that the Secretary of State should be openly politicised, but I am concerned that in this instance the Secretary of State will force the unelected Ofcom to do something that the Government will not do directly but will do behind the scenes. That is the danger. We will not even be able to see it correctly and it will emerge to the public as “media literacy” or something of that nature. That will obfuscate accountability even further. I have a lot of sympathy for the amendment to leave out this clause.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the need for Clauses 158 and 159. The amendments in this group consider the role of government in two specific areas: the power for the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom about its media literacy functions in special circumstances and the power for the Secretary of State to issue non-binding guidance to Ofcom. I will take each in turn.

Amendment 219 relates to Clause 158, on the Secretary of State’s power to direct Ofcom in special circumstances. These include where there is a significant threat to public safety, public health or national security. This is a limited power to enable the Secretary of State to set specific objectives for Ofcom’s media literacy activity in such circumstances. It allows the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom to issue public statement notices to regulated service providers, requiring providers to set out the steps they are taking to address the threat. The regulator and online platforms are thereby compelled to take essential and transparent actions to keep the public sufficiently informed during crises. The powers ensure that the regulatory framework is future-proofed and well equipped to respond in such circumstances.

As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, outlined, I corresponded with him very shortly before today’s debate and am happy to set out a bit more detail for the benefit of the rest of the House. As I said to him by email, we expect the media literacy powers to be used only in exceptional circumstances, where it is right that the Secretary of State should have the power to direct Ofcom. The Government see the need for an agile response to risk in times of acute crisis, such as we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic or in relation to the war in Ukraine. There may be a situation in which the Government have access to information, through the work of the security services or otherwise, which Ofcom does not. This power enables the Secretary of State to make quick decisions when the public are at risk.

Our expectation is that, in exceptional circumstances, Ofcom would already be taking steps to address harm arising from the provision of regulated services through its existing media literacy functions. However, these powers will allow the Secretary of State to step in if necessary to ensure that the regulator is responding effectively to these sudden threats. It is important to note that, for transparency, the Secretary of State will be required to publish the reasons for issuing a direction to Ofcom in these circumstances. This requirement does not apply should the circumstances relate to national security, to protect sensitive information.

The noble Lord asked why we have the powers under Clause 158 when they do not exist in relation to broadcast media. We believe that these powers are needed with respect to social media because, as we have seen during international crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, social media platforms can sadly serve as hubs for low-quality, user-generated information that is not required to meet journalistic standards, and that can pose a direct threat to public health. By contrast, Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code ensures that broadcast news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality. Ofcom can fine, or ultimately revoke a licence to broadcast in the most extreme cases, if that code is breached. This means that regulated broadcasters can be trusted to strive to communicate credible, authoritative information to their audiences in a way that social media cannot.

Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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We established in our last debate that the notion of a recognised news publisher will go much broader than a broadcaster. I put it to the Minister that we could end up in an interesting situation where one bit of the Bill says, “You have to protect content from these people because they are recognised news publishers”. Another bit, however, will be a direction to the Secretary of State saying that, to deal with this crisis, we are going to give a media literacy direction that says, “Please get rid of all the content from this same news publisher”. That is an anomaly that we risk setting up with these different provisions.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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On the previous group, I raised the issue of legal speech that was labelled as misinformation and removed in the extreme situation of a public health panic. This was seemingly because the Government were keen that particular public health information was made available. Subsequently, we discovered that those things were not necessarily untrue and should not have been removed. Is the Minister arguing that this power is necessary for the Government to direct that certain things are removed on the basis that they are misinformation—in which case, that is a direct attempt at censorship? After we have had a public health emergency in which “facts” have been contested and shown to not be as black and white or true as the Government claimed, saying that the power will be used only in extreme circumstances does not fill me with great confidence.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am happy to make it clear, as I did on the last group, that the power allows Ofcom not to require platforms to remove content, only to set out what they are doing in response to misinformation and disinformation—to require platforms to make a public statement about what they are doing to tackle it. In relation to regulating news providers, we have brought the further amendments forward to ensure that those subject to sanctions cannot avail themselves of the special provisions in the Bill. Of course, the Secretary of State will be mindful of the law when issuing directions in the exceptional circumstances that these clauses set out.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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While the Minister is describing that, can he explain exactly which media literacy power would be invoked by the kind of example I gave when I was introducing the amendment and in the circumstances he has talked about? Would he like to refer to the Communications Act?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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It depends on the circumstances. I do not want to give one example for fear of being unnecessarily restrictive. In relation to the health misinformation and disinformation we saw during the pandemic, an example would be the suggestions of injecting oneself with bleach; that sort of unregulated and unhelpful advice is what we have in mind. I will write to the noble Lord, if he wants, to see what provisions of the Communications Act we would want invoked in those circumstances.

In relation to Clause 159, which is dealt with by Amendment 222, it is worth setting out that the Secretary of State guidance and the statement of strategic priorities have distinct purposes and associated requirements. The purpose of the statement of strategic priorities is to enable the Secretary of State to specifically set out priorities in relation to online safety. For example, in the future, it may be that changes in the online experience mean that the Government of the day wish to set out their high-level overarching priorities. In comparison, the guidance allows for clarification of what Parliament and Government intended in passing this legislation—as I hope we will—by providing guidance on specific elements of the Bill in relation to Ofcom’s functions. There are no plans to issue guidance under this power but, for example, we are required to issue guidance to Ofcom in relation to the fee regime.

On the respective requirements, the statement of strategic priorities requires Ofcom to explain in writing what it proposes to do in consequence of the statement and publish an annual review of what it has done. Whereas Ofcom must “have regard” to the guidance, the guidance itself does not create any statutory requirements.

This is a new regime and is different in its nature from other established areas of regulations, such as broadcasting. The power in Clause 159 provides a mechanism to provide more certainty, if that is considered necessary, about how the Secretary of State expects Ofcom to carry out its statutory functions. Ofcom will be consulted before guidance is issued, and there are checks on how often it can be issued and revised. The guidance document itself, as I said, does not create any statutory requirements, so Ofcom is required only to “have regard” to it.

This will be an open and transparent way to put forward guidance appropriately with safeguards in place. The independence of the regulator is not at stake here. The clause includes significant limitations on the power, and the guidance cannot fetter Ofcom’s operational independence. We feel that both clauses are appropriate for inclusion in the Bill, so I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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I thank the Minister for that more extended reply. It is a more reassuring response on Clause 159 than we have had before. On Clause 158, the impression I get is that the media literacy power is being used as a smokescreen for the Government telling social media what it should do, indirectly via Ofcom. That seems extraordinary. If the Government were telling the mainstream media what to do in circumstances like this, we would all be up in arms. However, it seems to be accepted as a part of the Bill and that we should trust the Government. The Minister used the phrase “special circumstances”. That is not the phraseology in the clause; it is that “circumstances exist”, and then it goes on to talk about national security and public health. The bar is very low.

I am sure everyone is getting hungry at this time of day, so I will not continue. However, we still have grave doubts about this clause. It seems an extraordinary indirect form of censorship which I hope is never invoked. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

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Moved by
224: Clause 161, page 140, line 27, leave out “or 3” and insert “, 3 or 3A”
Member’s explanatory statement
Clause 161 is about a review by the Secretary of State of the regulatory framework established by this Bill. This amendment inserts a reference to Chapter 3A, which is the new Chapter containing the new duties imposed by the Clause proposed after Clause 67 in my name.
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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, clearly, there is a limited number of speakers in this debate. We should thank the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, for tabling this amendment because it raises a very interesting point about the transparency—or not—of the Counter Disinformation Unit. Of course, it is subject to an Oral Question tomorrow as well, which I am sure the noble Viscount will be answering.

There is some concern about the transparency of the activities of the Counter Disinformation Unit. In its report, Ministry of Truth, which deals at some length with the activities of the Counter Disinformation Unit, Big Brother Watch says:

“Giving officials an unaccountable hotline to flag lawful speech for removal from the digital public square is a worrying threat to free speech”.


Its complaint is not only about oversight; it is about the activities. Others such as Full Fact have stressed the fact that there is little or no parliamentary scrutiny. For instance, freedom of information requests have been turned down and Written Questions which try to probe what the activities of the Counter Disinformation Unit are have had very little response. As it says, when the Government

“lobby internet companies about content on their platforms … this is a threat to freedom of expression”.

We need proper oversight, so I am interested to hear the Minister’s response.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, the Government share the view of my noble friend Lord Moylan about the importance of transparency in protecting freedom of expression. I reassure him and other noble Lords that these principles are central to the Government’s operational response to addressing harmful disinformation and attempts artificially to manipulate our information environment.

My noble friend and others made reference to the operational work of the Counter Disinformation Unit, which is not, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said, the responsibility of my department but of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. The Government have always been transparent about the work of the unit; for example, recently publishing a factsheet on GOV.UK which sets out, among other things, how the unit works with social media companies.

I reassure my noble friend that there are existing processes governing government engagements with external parties and emphasise to him that the regulatory framework that will be introduced by the Bill serves to increase transparency and accountability in a way that I hope reassures him. Many teams across government regularly meet industry representatives on a variety of issues from farming and food to telecoms and digital infrastructure. These meetings are conducted within well-established transparency processes and frameworks, which apply in exactly the same way to government meetings with social media companies. The Government have been open about the fact that the Counter Disinformation Unit meets social media companies. Indeed, it would be surprising if it did not. For example, at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Government worked with social media companies in relation to narratives which were being circulated attempting to deny incidents leading to mass casualties, and to encourage the promotion of authoritative sources of information. That work constituted routine meetings and was necessary in confirming the Government’s confidence in the preparedness and ability of platforms to respond to new misinformation and disinformation threats.

To require additional reporting on a sector-by-sector or department-by-department basis beyond the standardised transparency processes, as proposed in my noble friend’s amendment, would be a disproportionate and unnecessary response to what is routine engagement in an area where the Government have no greater powers or influence than in others. They cannot compel companies to alter their terms of service; nor can or do they seek to mandate any action on specific pieces of content.

I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that the Counter Disinformation Unit does not monitor individual people, nor has it ever done so; rather, it tracks narratives and trends using publicly available information online to protect public health, public safety and national security. It has never tracked the activity of individuals, and there is a blanket ban on referring any content from journalists or parliamentarians to social media performs. The Government have always been clear that the Counter Disinformation Unit refers content for consideration only where an assessment has been made that it is likely to breach the platform’s own terms of service. It has no role in deciding what action, if any, to take in response, which is entirely a matter for the platform concerned.

As I said, the Bill will introduce new transparency, accountability and freedom of expression duties for category 1 services which will make the process for any removal or restriction of user-generated content more transparent by requiring category 1 services to set terms of service which are clear, easy for users to understand and consistently enforced. Category 1 services will be prohibited from removing or restricting user-generated content or suspending or banning users where this does not align with those terms of service. Any referrals from government will not, and indeed cannot, supersede these duties in the Bill.

Although I know it will disappoint my noble friend that another of his amendments has not been accepted, I hope I have been able to reassure him about the Government’s role in these processes. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, noted, my noble friend Lord Camrose is answering a Question on this in your Lordships’ House tomorrow, further underlining the openness and parliamentary accountability with which we go about this work. I hope my noble friend will, in a similarly post-prandial mood of generosity, suppress his disappointment and feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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Before the Minister sits down, I think that it is entirely appropriate for him to say—I have heard it before—“Oh no, nothing was taken down. None of this is believable. No individuals were targeted”. However, that is not the evidence I have seen, and it might well be that I have been shown misinformation. But that is why the Minister has to acknowledge that one of the problems here is that indicated by Full Fact—which, as we know, is often endorsed by government Ministers as fact-checkers. It says that because the Government are avoiding any scrutiny for this unit, it cannot know. It becomes a “he said, she said” situation. I am afraid that, because of the broader context, it would make the Minister’s life easier, and be clearer to the public—who are, after all, worried about this—if he accepted the ideas in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. We would then be clear and it would be out in the open. If the FOIs and so on that have been constantly put forward were answered, would that not clear it up?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I have addressed the points made by the noble Baroness and my noble friend already. She asks the same question again and I can give her the same answer. We are operating openly and transparently here, and the Bill sets out further provisions for transparency and accountability.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I see what my noble friend did there, and it was very cunning. He gave us a very worthwhile account of the activities of the Counter Disinformation Unit, a body I had not mentioned at all, as if the Counter Disinformation Unit was the sole locus of this sort of activity. I had not restricted it to that. We know, in fact, that other bodies within government have been involved in undertaking this sort of activity, and on those he has given us no answer at all, because he preferred to answer about one particular unit. He referred also to its standardised transparency processes. I can hardly believe that I am reading out words such as those. The standardised transparency process allows us all to know that encounters take place but still refuses to let us know what actually happens in any particular encounter, even though there is a great public interest in doing so. However, I will not press it any further.

My noble friend, who is genuinely a friend, is in danger of putting himself, at the behest of civil servants and his ministerial colleagues, in some danger. We know what happens in these cases. The Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says “This has never happened; it never normally happens; it will not happen. Individuals are never spoken of, and actions of this character are never taken”. Then of course, a few weeks or months later, out pour the leaked emails showing that all these things have been happening all the time. The Minister then has to resign in disgrace and it is all very sad. His friends, like myself, rally round and buy him a drink, before we never see him again.

Anyway, I think my noble friend must be very careful that he does not put himself in that position. I think he has come close to doing so this evening, through the assurances he has given your Lordships’ House. Although I do not accept those assurances, I will none the less withdraw the amendment, with the leave of the House.

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Moved by
227: Clause 173, page 150, line 23, at end insert “or
(c) an assessment required to be carried out by section (Assessment duties: user empowerment),”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that Clause 173, which is about the approach to be taken by providers to judgements about the status of content, applies to assessments under the new Clause proposed after Clause 11 in my name.
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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a good debate. It is very hard to see where one would want to take it. If it proves anything, it is that the decision to drop the legal but harmful provisions in the Bill was probably taken for the wrong reasons but was the right decision, since this is where we end up—in an impossible moral quandary which no amount of writing, legalistic or otherwise, will get us out of. This should be a systems Bill, not a content Bill.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I start by saying that accurate systems and processes for content moderation are crucial to the workability of this Bill and keeping users safe from harm. Amendment 228 from the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, seeks to remove the requirement for platforms to treat content as illegal or fraudulent content if reasonable grounds for that inference exist. The noble Lord set out his concerns about platforms over-removing content when assessing illegality.

Under Clause 173(5), platforms will need to have reasonable grounds to determine whether content is illegal or a fraudulent advertisement. Only when a provider has reasonable grounds to infer that said content is illegal or a fraudulent advertisement must it then comply with the relevant requirements set out in the Bill. This would mean removing the content or preventing people from encountering it through risk-based and proportionate systems and processes.

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Moved by
230: After Clause 174, insert the following new Clause—
“Time for publishing first guidance under certain provisions of this Act
(1) OFCOM must publish guidance to which this section applies within the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed. (2) This section applies to—(a) the first guidance under section 47(2)(a) (record-keeping and review);(b) the first guidance under section 47(2)(b) (children’s access assessments);(c) the first guidance under section 48(1) (content harmful to children);(d) the first guidance under section 73 (provider pornographic content);(e) the first guidance under section 90(1) (illegal content risk assessments under section 8);(f) the first guidance under section 90(2) (illegal content risk assessments under section 22);(g) the first guidance under section 90(3) (children’s risk assessments);(h) the first guidance under section 140 (enforcement);(i) the first guidance under section 174 relating to illegal content judgements within the meaning of subsection (2)(a) of that section (illegal content and fraudulent advertisements).(3) If OFCOM consider that it is necessary to extend the period mentioned in subsection (1) in relation to guidance mentioned in any of paragraphs (a) to (i) of subsection (2), OFCOM may extend the period in relation to that guidance by up to 12 months by making and publishing a statement.But this is subject to subsection (6).(4) A statement under subsection (3) must set out—(a) the reasons why OFCOM consider that it is necessary to extend the period mentioned in subsection (1) in relation to the guidance concerned, and(b) the period of extension.(5) A statement under subsection (3) may be published at the same time as (or incorporate) a statement under section 38(12) (extension of time to prepare certain codes of practice).(6) But a statement under subsection (3) may not be made in relation to guidance mentioned in a particular paragraph of subsection (2) if—(a) a statement has previously been made under subsection (3) (whether in relation to guidance mentioned in the same or a different paragraph of subsection (2)), or(b) a statement has previously been made under section 38(12).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that OFCOM must prepare the first guidance under certain provisions of the Bill within 18 months of Royal Assent, unless they consider a longer period to be necessary in which case OFCOM may (on one occasion only) extend the period and set out why in a published statement.
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Moved by
231: Clause 176, page 152, line 33, at end insert—
“(ga) Chapter 3A of Part 4 (deceased child users);”Member’s explanatory statement
Clause 176 is about liability of providers who are individuals. This amendment inserts a reference to Chapter 3A, which is the new Chapter containing the new duties imposed by the Clause proposed after Clause 67 in my name, so that individuals may be jointly and severally liable for the duties imposed by that clause.
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Moved by
231A: Clause 179, page 154, line 8, leave out “is” and insert “has been”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is a minor change to ensure consistency of tenses.
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Moved by
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
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232: Schedule 17, page 247, line 35, at end insert—


“(ba) section (Assessment duties: user empowerment) (assessments related to the adult user empowerment duty set out in section 12(2)), and”

Member’s explanatory statement


This amendment ensures that, during the transitional period when video-sharing platform services continue to be regulated by Part 4B of the Communications Act 2003, providers of such services are not exempt from the new duty in the new clause proposed after Clause 11 in my name to carry out assessments for the purposes of the user empowerment duties in Clause 12(2).

233: Schedule 17, page 247, line 36, leave out “and (9) (records of risk assessments)” and insert “, (8A) and (9) (records of assessments)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that, during the transitional period when video-sharing platform services continue to be regulated by Part 4B of the Communications Act 2003, providers of such services are not exempt from the new duty inserted in Clause 19 (see the amendments of that Clause proposed in my name) to keep records of the new assessments.
234: Schedule 17, page 248, line 20, at end insert—
“(ea) the duties set out in section (Disclosure of information about use of service by deceased child users) (deceased child users);”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that services already regulated under Part 4B of the Communications Act 2003 (video-sharing platform services) are not required to comply with the new duties imposed by the clause proposed after Clause 67 in my name during the transitional period.
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Moved by
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay
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236A: After Clause 194, insert the following new Clause—


“Power to regulate app stores


(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section and section (Power to regulate app stores: supplementary), the Secretary of State may by regulations amend any provision of this Act to make provision for or in connection with the regulation of internet services that are app stores.

(2) Regulations under this section may not be made before OFCOM have published a report under section (OFCOM’s report about use of app stores by children)(report about use of app stores by children).

(3) Regulations under this section may be made only if the Secretary of State, having considered that report, considers that there is a material risk of significant harm to an appreciable number of children presented by either of the following, or by both taken together—

(a) harmful content present on app stores, or

(b) harmful content encountered by means of regulated apps available in app stores.

(4) Before making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must consult—

(a) persons who appear to the Secretary of State to represent providers of app stores,

(b) persons who appear to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of children (generally or with particular reference to online safety matters),

(c) OFCOM,

(d) the Information Commissioner,

(e) the Children’s Commissioner, and

(f) such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(5) In this section and in section (Power to regulate app stores: supplementary)—

“amend” includes repeal and apply (with or without modifications);

“app” includes an app for use on any kind of device, and “app store” is to be read accordingly;

“content that is harmful to children” has the same meaning as in Part 3 (see section 54);

“harmful content” means—

(a) content that is harmful to children,

(b) search content that is harmful to children, and

(c) regulated provider pornographic content;

“regulated app” means an app for a regulated service;

“regulated provider pornographic content” has the same meaning as in Part 5 (see section 70);

“search content” has the same meaning as in Part 3 (see section 51).

(6) In this section and in section (Power to regulate app stores: supplementary) references to children are to children in the United Kingdom.”

Member’s explanatory statement


This amendment provides that the Secretary of State may make regulations amending this Bill so as to bring app stores within its scope. The regulations may not be made until OFCOM have published their report about the use of app stores by children (see the new Clause proposed to be inserted after Clause 147 in my name).

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, we have had some productive discussions on application stores, commonly known as “app stores”, and their role as a gateway for children accessing online services. I am grateful in particular to my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe for her detailed scrutiny of this area and the collaborative approach she has taken in relation to it and to her amendments, to which I will turn in a moment. These share the same goals as the amendments tabled in my name in seeking to add evidence-based duties on app stores to protect children.

The amendments in my name will do two things. First, they will establish an evidence base on the use of app stores by children and the role that app stores play in children encountering harmful content online. Secondly, following consideration of this evidence base, the amendments also confer a power on the Secretary of State to bring app stores into scope of the Bill should there be a material risk of significant harm to children on or through them.

On the evidence base, Amendment 272A places a duty on Ofcom to publish a report on the role of app stores in children accessing harmful content on the applications of regulated services. To help build a greater evidence base about the types of harm available on and through different kinds of app stores, the report will consider a broad range of these stores, which could include those available on various devices, such as smartphones, gaming devices and smart televisions. The report will also assess the use and effectiveness of age assurance on app stores and consider whether the greater use of age assurance or other measures could protect children further.

Publication of the report must be two to three years after the child safety duties come into force so as not to interfere with the Bill’s implementation timelines. This timing will also enable the report to take into account the impact of the regulatory framework that the Bill establishes.

Amendment 274A is a consequential amendment to include this report in the Bill’s broader confidentiality provisions, meaning that Ofcom will need to exclude confidential matters—for example, commercially sensitive information—from the report’s publication.

Government Amendments 236A, 236B and 237D provide the Secretary of State with a delegated power to bring app stores into the scope of regulation following consideration of Ofcom’s report. The power will allow the Secretary of State to make regulations putting duties on app stores to reduce the risks of harm presented to children from harmful content on or via app stores. The specific requirements in these regulations will be informed by the outcome of the Ofcom report I have mentioned.

As well as setting out the rules for app stores, the regulations may also make provisions regarding the duties and functions of Ofcom in regulating app stores. This may include information-gathering and enforcement powers, as well as any obligations to produce guidance or codes of practice for app store providers.

By making these amendments, our intention is to build a robust evidence base on the potential risks of app stores for children without affecting the Bill’s implementation more broadly. Should it be found that duties are required, the Secretary of State will have the ability to make robust and comprehensive duties, which will provide further layers of protection for children. I beg to move.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, before speaking to my Amendment 239A, I thank my noble friend the Minister, the Secretary of State and the teams in both the department and Ofcom for their collaborative approach in working to bring forward this group of amendments. I also thank my cosignatories. My noble friend Lady Stowell cannot be in her place tonight but she has been hugely helpful in guiding me through the procedure, as have been the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Knight, not to mention the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. It has been a proper cross-House team effort. Even the noble Lord, Lord Allan, who started out quite sceptical, has been extremely helpful in shaping the discussion.

I also thank the NSPCC and Barnardo’s for their invaluable advice and support, as well as Snap and Match—two companies which have been willing to stick their heads above the parapet and challenge suppliers and providers on which they are completely dependent in the shape of the current app store owners, Apple and Google.

I reassure my noble friend the Minister—and everyone else—that I have no intention of dividing the House on my amendment, in case noble Lords were worried. I am simply seeking some reassurance on a number of points where my amendments differ from those tabled by the Government—but, first, I will highlight the similarities.

As my noble friend the Minister has referred to, I am delighted that we have two packages of amendments that in both cases recognise that this was a really significant gap in the Bill as drafted. Ignoring the elements of the ecosystem that sell access to regulated services, decide age guidelines and have the ability to do age assurance was a substantial gap in the framing of the Bill. But we have also recognised together that it is very important that this is an “and” not an “or”—it is not instead of regulating user-to-user services or search but in addition to. It is an additional layer that we can bring to protect children online, and it is very important that we recognise that—and both packages do.

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I gather that the Minister’s department has a working group to examine loot boxes. An update on that now, or in writing if he would prefer, would be helpful. The main point of raising this is apparent: app stores are an important pinch point in the digital user journey. We need to ensure that Ofcom has a proper look at whether including them helps it deliver the aims of the Bill. We should include the powers for it to be able to do that, in addition to the other safeguards that we are putting in the Bill to protect children. We strongly support these amendments.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful for the strength of support and echo the tributes that have been paid to my noble friend Lady Harding—the winsome Baroness from Winscombe —for raising this issue and working with us so collaboratively on it. I am particularly glad that we were able to bring these amendments on Report; as she knows, it involved some speedy work by the Bill team and some speedy drafting by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, but I am glad that we were able to do it on Report, so that I can take it off my list of things to do over the summer, which was kindly written for me by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.

My noble friend’s amendments were laid before the Government’s, so she rightly asked a couple of questions on where they slightly differ. Her amendment seeks to ensure that other websites or online marketplaces that allow users to download apps are also caught by these duties. I reassure her that the Government’s amendments would capture these types of services. We have intentionally not provided detail about what constitutes an app store to ensure that the Bill remains future-proof. I will say a bit more about that in a moment. Regulations made by the Secretary of State under this power will be able to specify thresholds for which app stores are in scope, giving clarity to providers and users about the application of the duties.

On questions of definition, we are intentionally choosing not to define app stores in these amendments. The term is generally understood as meaning a service that makes applications available, which means that the Secretary of State will be able to impose duties on any such service. Any platform that enables apps to be downloaded can therefore be considered an app store for the purpose of this duty, regardless of whether or not it calls itself one. Regulations will clearly set out which providers are in scope of the duties. The ability to set threshold conditions will also ensure that any duties capture only those that pose the greatest risk of children accessing harmful content.

We touched on the long-running debate about content and functionality. We have made our position on that clear; it will be caught by references to content. I am conscious that we will return to this on Wednesday, when we will have a chance to debate it further.

On timing, as I said, I am glad that we were able to bring these amendments forward at this stage. The publication date for Ofcom’s report is to ensure that Ofcom can prioritise the implementation of the child safety duties and put in place the Bill’s vital protections for children before turning to its research on app stores.

That timing also allows the Secretary of State to base his or her decision on commencement on the effectiveness of the existing framework and to use the research of Ofcom’s report to set out a more granular approach to issues such as risk assessment and safety duties. It is necessary to await the findings of Ofcom’s report before those duties are commenced.

To the questions posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others about the consultation for that report by Ofcom, we expect Ofcom to consult widely and with all relevant parties when producing its report. We do not believe that there is a need for a specific list of consultees given Ofcom’s experience and expertise in this area as well as the great experience it will have through its existing enforcement and wider consultation requirements. In addition, the Secretary of State, before making regulations, will be required to consult a range of key parties, such as the Children’s Commissioner and the Information Commissioner, and those who represent the interests of children, as well as providers of app stores. That can include children themselves.

On the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, on loot boxes, he is right that this piece of work is being led by my department. We want to see the games industry take the lead in strengthening protections for children and adults to mitigate the risk of harms. We are pursuing that through a DCMS-led technical working group, and we will publish an update on progress in the coming months. I again express my gratitude to my noble friend Lady Harding and other noble Lords who have expressed their support.

Amendment 236A agreed.
Moved by
236B: After Clause 194, insert the following new Clause—
“Power to regulate app stores: supplementary
(1) In this section (except in subsection (4)(c)) “regulations” means regulations under section (Power to regulate app stores)(1).(2) Provision may be made by regulations only for or in connection with the purposes of minimising or mitigating the risks of harm to children presented by harmful content as mentioned in section (Power to regulate app stores)(3)(a) and (b).(3) Regulations may not have the effect that any body other than OFCOM is the regulator in relation to app stores.(4) Regulations may—(a) make provision exempting specified descriptions of app stores from regulation under this Act;(b) make provision amending Part 2, section 49 or Schedule 1 in connection with provision mentioned in paragraph (a);(c) make provision corresponding or similar to provision which may be made by regulations under paragraph 1 of Schedule 11 (“threshold conditions”), with the effect that only app stores which meet specified conditions are regulated by this Act.(5) Regulations may make provision having the effect that app stores provided from outside the United Kingdom are regulated by this Act (as well as app stores provided from within the United Kingdom), but, if they do so, must contain provision corresponding or similar to section 3(5) and (6)(UK links).(6) The provision that may be made by regulations includes provision—(a) imposing on providers of app stores duties corresponding or similar to duties imposed on providers of Part 3 services by—(i) section 10 or 11 (children’s online safety: user-to-user services) or any of sections 16 to 19 so far as relating to section 10 or 11;(ii) section 24 or 25 (children’s online safety: search services) or any of sections 26 to 29 so far as relating to section 24 or 25;(b) imposing on providers of app stores duties corresponding or similar to duties imposed on providers of internet services within section 71(2) by section 72 (duties about regulated provider pornographic content);(c) imposing on providers of app stores requirements corresponding or similar to requirements imposed on providers of regulated services by, or by OFCOM under, Part 6 (fees); (d) imposing on OFCOM duties in relation to app stores corresponding or similar to duties imposed in relation to Part 3 services by Chapter 3 of Part 7 (OFCOM’s register of risks, and risk profiles);(e) conferring on OFCOM functions in relation to app stores corresponding or similar to the functions that OFCOM have in relation to regulated services under—(i) Chapter 4 of Part 7 (information), or(ii) Chapter 6 of Part 7 (enforcement), including provisions of that Chapter conferring power for OFCOM to impose monetary penalties;(f) about OFCOM’s production of guidance or a code of practice relating to any aspect of the regulation of app stores that is included in the regulations.(7) The provision that may be made by regulations includes provision having the effect that app stores fall within the definition of “Part 3 service” or “regulated service” for the purposes of specified provisions of this Act (with the effect that specified provisions of this Act which apply in relation to Part 3 services or regulated services, or to providers of Part 3 services or regulated services, also apply in relation to app stores or to providers of app stores).(8) Regulations may not amend or make provision corresponding or similar to—(a) Chapter 2 of Part 4 (reporting CSEA content),(b) Chapter 5 of Part 7 (notices to deal with terrorism content and CSEA content), or(c) Part 10 (communications offences).(9) Regulations may make different provision with regard to app stores of different kinds.(10) In this section “specified” means specified in regulations.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes provision about the purpose and contents of regulations to regulate app stores which may be made by the Secretary of State under the preceding new Clause proposed to be inserted in my name.