Bishop of Oxford and Bishop of Leeds support statements of purpose for Online Safety Bill

On 19th April 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in its first day of the committee stage. The Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of Leeds each spoke in support of an amendment to the bill tabled by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, setting out seven main purposes of the bill:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow other noble Lords who have spoken. I too support this key first amendment. Clarity of purpose is essential in any endeavour. The amendment overall sets out the Bill’s aims and enhances what will be vital legislation for the world, I hope, as well as for the United Kingdom. The Government have the very welcome ambition of making Britain the safest country in the world to go online. The OSB is a giant step in that direction.

As has been said, there has been remarkable consensus across the Committee on what further measures may still be needed to improve the Bill and on this first amendment, setting out these seven key purposes. Noble Lords may be aware that in the Christian tradition the number seven is significant: in the medieval period the Church taught the dangers of the seven deadly sins, the merits of the seven virtues and the seven acts of mercy. Please speak to me later if a refresher course is needed.

Amendment 1 identifies seven deadly dangers—I think they are really deadly. They are key risks which we all acknowledge are unwelcome and destructive companions of the new technologies which bring so many benefits: risks to public health or national security; the risk of serious harm to children; the risk of new developments and technologies not currently in scope; the disproportionate risk to those who manifest one or more protected characteristics; risks that occur through poor design; risks to freedom of expression and privacy; and risks that come with low transparency and low accountability. Safety and security are surely one of the primary duties of government, especially the safety and security of children and the vulnerable. There is much that is good and helpful in new technology but much that can be oppressive and destructive. These seven risks are real and present dangers. The Bill is needed because of actual and devastating harm caused to people and communities.

As we have heard, we are living through a period of rapid acceleration in the development of AI. Two days ago, CBS broadcast a remarkable documentary on the latest breakthroughs by Google and Microsoft. The legislation we craft in these weeks needs future-proofing. That can happen only through a clear articulation of purpose so that the framework provided by the Bill continues to evolve under the stewardship of the Secretary of State and of Ofcom.

I have been in dialogue over the past five years with tech companies in a variety of contexts and I have seen a variety of approaches, from the highly responsible in some companies to the frankly cavalier. Good practice, especially in design, needs stronger regulation to become uniform. I really enjoyed the analogy from the noble Lord, Lord Allan, a few minutes ago. We would not tolerate for a moment design and safety standards in aeroplanes, cars or washing machines which had the capacity to cause harm to people, least of all to children. We should not tolerate lesser standards in our algorithms and technologies.

There is no map for the future of technology and its use, even over the rest of this decade, but this amendment provides a compass—a fixed point for navigation in the future, for which future generations will thank this Government and this House. These seven deadly dangers need to be stated clearly in the Bill and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, to be a North Star for both the Secretary of State and Ofcom. I support the amendment.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab): When the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked about being the safest place in the world to go online, which is the claim that has been made about the Bill from the beginning, I was reminded again of the difficulty of overcommitting and underdelivering. The Bill is not perfect, and I do not believe that it will be when this Committee and this House have finished their work; we will need to keep coming back and legislating and regulating in this area, as we pursue the goal of being the safest place in the world to go online —but it will not be any time soon.

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, first, I am relieved to hear that I am not the only thick person in this Committee, because I have struggled to understand and follow the detail and interconnectedness of everything in the Bill. The maxim that you need simplicity and clarity, especially if the Bill is going to be effective, is really important. That is why I think this amendment is a no-brainer: just set it out at the front.

Secondly, the amendment provides a guideline, or a lens through which we read the complexity of what follows. That might even lead us, as we go through some of the detail, to strip stuff out and make it simpler for everybody to understand. It does not have to grow the extent of the Bill. It might help us to be—I think this is the most important word I have heard—disciplined as we proceed. I support the amendment.

Lord Clement-Jones (LD): The introduction to our Joint Committee report makes it clear that without the original architecture of a duty of care, as the White Paper originally proposed, we need an explicit set of objectives to ensure clarity for Ofcom when drawing up the codes and when the provisions of the Bill are tested in court, as they inevitably will be. Indeed, in practice, the tests that many of us will use when judging whether to support amendments as the Bill passes through the House are inherently bound up with these purposes, several of which many of us mentioned at Second Reading. Decisions may need to be made on balancing some of these objectives and purposes, but that is the nature of regulation. I have considerable confidence, as I mentioned earlier, in Ofcom’s ability to do this, and those seven objectives—as the right reverend Prelate reminded us, the rule of seven is important in other contexts—set that out.

In their response to the report published more than a year ago, the Government repeated at least half of these objectives in stating their own intentions for the Bill. Indeed, they said:

“We are pleased to agree with the Joint Committee on the core objectives of the Bill”,

and, later:

“We agree with all of the objectives the Joint Committee has set out, and believe that the Bill already encapsulates and should achieve these objectives”.

That is exactly the point of dispute: we need this to be explicit, and the Government seem to believe that it is implicit.

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