All 1 Baroness Deech contributions to the Online Safety Act 2023

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Thu 27th Apr 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1

Online Safety Bill

Baroness Deech Excerpts
Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, in moving my Amendment 13 I will speak to all the amendments in the group, all of which are in my name with the exception of Amendment 157 in the name of my noble friend Lord Pickles. These are interlinked amendments; they work together. There is effectively only one amendment going on. A noble Lord challenged me a day or two ago as to whether I could summarise in a sentence what the amendment does, and the answer is that I think I can: Clause 23 imposes various duties on search engines, and this amendment would remove one of those duties from search engines that fall into category 2B.

There are two categories of search engines, 2A and 2B, and category 2B is the smaller search engines. We do not know the difference between them in greater detail than that because the schedule that relates to them reserves to the Secretary of State the power to set the thresholds that will define which category a search engine falls into, but I think it is clear that category 2B is the smaller ones.

These amendments pursue a theme that I brought up in Committee earlier in the week when I argued that the Bill would put excessively onerous and unnecessary obligations on smaller businesses. The particular duty that these amendments would take away from smaller search engines is referred to in Clause 23(2):

“A duty, in relation to a service, to take or use proportionate measures relating to the design or operation of the service to effectively mitigate and manage the risks of harm to individuals, as identified in the most recent illegal content risk assessment of the service”.

The purpose of that is to recognise that very large numbers of smaller businesses do not pose a risk, according to the Government’s own assessment of the market, and to allow them to get on with their business without taking these onerous and difficult measures. They are probing amendments to try to find out what the Government are willing to do in relation to smaller businesses that will make this a workable Bill.

I can already imagine that there are noble Lords in the Chamber who will say that small does not equal safe, and that small businesses need to be covered by the same rigorous regulations as larger businesses. But I am not saying that small equals safe. I am saying—as I attempted to say when the Committee met earlier—that absolute safety is not attainable. It is not attainable in the real world, nor can we expect it to be attainable in the online world. I imagine that objection will be made. I see it has some force, but I do not think it has sufficient compelling force to put the sort of burden on small businesses that this Bill would do, and I would like to hear more about it.

I will say one other thing. Those who object to this approach need to be sure in their own minds that they are not contributing to creating a piece of legislation that, when it comes into operation, is so difficult to implement that it becomes discredited. There needs to be a recognition that this has to work in practice. If it does not—if it creates resentment and opposition—we will find the Government not bringing sections of it into force, needing to repeal them or going easy on them once the blowback starts, so to speak. With that, I beg to move.

Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 157 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, and others, since the noble Lord is unavoidably absent. It is along the same lines as Amendment 13; it is relatively minor and straightforward, and asks the Government to recognise that search services such as Google are enormously important as an entry to the internet. They are different from social media companies such as Twitter. We ask that the Government be consistent in applying their stated terms when these are breached in respect of harm to users, whether that be through algorithms, through auto-prompts or otherwise.

As noble Lords will be aware, the Bill treats user-to-user services, such as Meta, and search services, such as Google, differently. The so-called third shield or toggle proposed for shielding users from legal but harmful content, should they wish to be shielded, does not apply when it comes to search services, important though they are. Indeed, at present, large, traditional search services, including Google and Microsoft Bing, and voice search assistants, including Alexa and Siri, will be exempted from several of the requirements for large user-to-user services—category 1 companies. Why the discrepancy? Though search services rightly highlight that the content returned by a search is not created or published by them, the algorithmic indexing, promotion and search prompts provided in search bars—the systems they design and employ—are their responsibility, and these have been proven to do harm.

Some of the examples of such harm have already been cited in the other place, but not before this Committee. I do not want to give them too much of an airing because they were in the past, and the search people have taken them down after complaints, but some of the dreadful things that emerge from searching on Google et cetera are a warning of what could occur. It has been pointed out that search engines would in the past have thrown up, for example, swastikas, SS bolts and other Nazi memorabilia when people searched for desk ornaments. If George Soros’s name came up, he would be included in a list of people responsible for world evils. The Bing service, which I dislike anyway, has been directing people—at last, it did in the past—to anti-Semitic and homophobic searches through its auto-complete, while Google’s image carousel highlighted pictures of portable barbecues to those searching for the term “Jewish baby stroller”.

--- Later in debate ---
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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Having listened to the Minister, I think we need clarification on the issue of duplication and what is illegal as opposed to just harmful. If we can clarify that, I shall not move my Amendment 157.

Lord Beith Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Beith) (LD)
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When we come to Amendment 157, that will be noted.

Amendments 13A to 13C