Online Safety Bill: Bishop of Oxford speaks on risks to vulnerable adults

On 1st February 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in the debate , raising the importance of risk assessments of harm to adults, the independence of Ofcom, and the dangers of technology facilitated crime & domestic abuse:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is an honour and privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and all those who have spoken in this debate. As a member of your Lordships’ Committee on Artificial Intelligence and a founding member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, I have followed the slow progress of this Bill since the original White Paper. We have seen increasing evidence that many social media platforms are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone prevent, harms of the kind this vital Bill addresses. We know that there is an all too porous frontier between the virtual world and the physical world. The resulting harms damage real lives, real families, and real children, as we have heard.

There is a growing list of priority harms and now there is concern, as well as excitement, over new AIs such as ChatGPT; they demonstrate yet again that technology has no inherent precautionary principles. Without systemic checks and balances, AI in every field develops faster than society can respond. We are and for ever will be catching up with the technology.

The Bill is very welcome, marking as it does a belated but important step towards rebalancing a complex but vital aspect of public life. I pay tribute to the Government and to civil servants for their patient efforts to address a complex set of ethical and practical issues in a proportionate way. But the job is not yet fully done.

I will concentrate on three particular areas of concern with the draft Bill. First, removal of risk assessments regarding harm to adults is concerning. Surely every company has a basic moral duty to assess the risk of its products or services to customers and consumers. Removal can only undermine a risk-based approach to regulation. Can the Minister explain how conducting a risk assessment erodes or threatens freedom of speech? My second concern, mentioned by others, is the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to Ofcom. This country has a record of independence of our own media regulators. Others have touched on that, so I will not elaborate. The third area of concern I wish to raise is the Bill’s provision—or rather lack of provision—over disinformation of various kinds. I currently serve on your Lordships’ Environment and Climate Change Committee; climate disinformation and medical disinformation inflict substantial harms on society and must be included in user empowerment tools.

Other right reverend Prelates will raise their own concerns in the forthcoming Committee. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Gloucester believes that it is imperative that we prevent technology-facilitated domestic abuse, as well as bring in a code of practice to keep women and girls safe online. To help young people flourish, we should look at controlling algorithmically served content, restrictions on face and body-editing apps, as well as improving media literacy overall. She is unable to speak today, but will follow these issues closely.

The Bill is vital for the health of children and adults, and the flourishing of our whole society. I look forward to progress being made in this House.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con): My Lords, I refer to my registered interests, in particular my work with Common Sense Media, a US not-for-profit that is focused on internet safety for children. What a pleasure it is to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford—my local bishop, no less. I always find it a great thing that it is our Bishops who read their speeches from iPads; we have iBishops in this Chamber who are far more technologically advanced than the rest of us. What a pleasure it is to see our national treasure the Arts Minister on the Front Bench; yesterday he launched the 2021 report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which displays ancient treasures dug up from many centuries ago. I thought he might be presented with the first consultation paper on the Online Safety Bill, because it has taken so long to get to the stage where we are today.

A dozen years ago, when we talked about the impact of the internet, we were actually focused on copyright infringement; that was the big issue of the day. It is quite instructive to think about what happened there; it was a combination of technology, but also business solutions, licensing and the creation of companies such as Spotify that had an impact. But piracy remains with us, and will continue to remain with us because of the internet.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Lab): My second concern relates to Clause 12, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford raised and which the nobles Baronesses, Lady Hollins and Lady Finlay, also spoke to, on the protection of adults from risk and harm. I do not think enough attention has been paid to what is happening with pornography and with mental health. Here I declare an interest as the founder and vice-chair of an All-party Group for the Twelve Steps Recovery Programme from Addiction. Addiction is not just about alcohol. AA started the 12-step programme but it has been extended over the years to a whole range of other addictions—not least drugs, gambling and overeating, and in particular it is growing quite extensively in the sexual field. We have a range of 12-step programmes operating, including for SLA—sex and love addiction—and sexual addiction. As to the latter, an ever-increasing number of people are in grave trouble due to the effects of pornography, not just solely on themselves but consequently the rest of their family in a whole range of different ways.

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