Queen’s Speech – Bishop of Oxford welcomes online safety bill plans

On 18th May 2021 the Bishop of Oxford spoke during the fourth day of debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech, focusing on proposals to legislate for online safety.

My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Fullbrook—I thank her for her maiden speech. I warmly welcome the online safety Bill, referenced in the most gracious Address. I declare my interest as a board member for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

It is my view that the online safety Bill represents a major step forward in preventing harm to children, vulnerable adults and our wider society. The Bill places a robust duty of care on content-sharing platforms and creates a major new regulator by extending the remit of Ofcom. Those designing the Bill have listened carefully and have risen to the challenge of scoping a regulatory framework for new and rapidly changing technologies. The internet is used by over 90% of adults in the United Kingdom. There are many benefits to that use, as we have seen during the pandemic, but also great potential for harm. As the memorandum from DCMS indicates very clearly, this landmark regulation will end the era of self-regulation. The Bill is likely to prove a key benchmark, not only for the United Kingdom, but for governments around the world.

The technology is evolving rapidly, and the Bill provides flexible mechanisms for responding to new developments through the evolution of codes of practice and the powers given to the Secretary of State. The extra time given to develop the Bill has been well used; however, the legislation and frameworks are needed very urgently as other noble Lords have said. Will the Government set out their assessment of the timescale, from the publication of the Bill to the date when the regime will be working? Are there ways to accelerate this, including a request from the Government now to Ofcom, asking it to prepare to receive powers under the online safety Bill.

Will the Government please clarify what has happened about their intention to deal with the vital questions of age verification and access to pornography sites, which seem not to have been included, as I thought was promised? Finally, will they clarify the ongoing role of Parliament in further improving the legislation offered and in the SI-making process, where the Secretary of State seems to have the initiative?

The Bill will make a very substantial contribution in translating the deep values of our society, the worth of each individual, public responsibility and care for children into the online world, and I look forward to it becoming law.

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