On 27th April 2023, the Bishop of Oxford spoke in committee in support of amendments to the Online Safety Bill that would expand the definition of online harms to children to cover a broader spectrum of potential risk:
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I support Amendments 20, 93 and 123, in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Stevenson. I also support Amendment 74 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I pay tribute to the courage of all noble Lords and their teams, and of the Minister and the Bill team, for their work on this part of the Bill. This work involves the courage to dare to look at some very difficult material that, sadly, shapes the everyday life of too many young people. This group of amendments is part of a package of measures to strengthen the protections for children in the Bill by introducing a new schedule of harms to children and plugging a chronological gap between Part 3 and Part 5 services, on when protection from pornography comes into effect.
Every so often in these debates, we have been reminded of the connection with real lives and people. Yesterday evening, I spent some time speaking on the telephone with Amanda and Stuart Stephens, the mum and dad of Olly Stephens, who lived in Reading, which is part of the diocese of Oxford. Noble Lords will remember that Olly was tragically murdered, aged 13, in a park near his home, by teenagers of a similar age. Social media played a significant part in the investigation and in the lives of Olly and his friends—specifically, social media posts normalising knife crime and violence, with such a deeply tragic outcome.
Last year in June, “Panorama” dared to look into this world. The programme revealed the depth and extent of the normalisation of knives and knife crime in posts offered to young people. I was struck by the comments of Frances Haugen, filmed when she met Stuart and Amanda. She said that each of us sees social media through a pinhole: a tiny snapshot of the total content. We have no idea how much darkness and evil are shaping children and young people, destroying their sense of proportion and deeply affecting offline behaviour. The only group that has the whole picture, of course, is the companies themselves.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others have outlined the remarkable degree of support for this raft of amendments from charities working to protect children. We should listen. These amendments will ensure a much wider definition of “harm” and will again future-proof the Bill in terms of technology which is even now coming over the horizon.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate speaks about an arms race to devise ever more effective ways of keeping users’ attention, even if it means putting them at risk. Its researchers set up new accounts in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia at the minimum age TikTok allows: 13 years old. Those accounts paused briefly on videos about body image and mental health and liked them. What the researchers found was deeply disturbing. Within 2.6 minutes, TikTok recommended suicide content. Within 8 minutes, TikTok served content relating to eating disorders. Every 39 seconds, TikTok recommended videos about body image and mental health to teens. CCDH researchers found a community for eating disorder content on the platform amassing 13.2 billion views across 56 hashtags, often designed to evade moderation.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, this fourfold classification of harms to children is being adapted elsewhere in the world, including the European Union. The schedule in the amendment gives clear but non-exhaustive examples to guide service providers on the meaning of each of the four Cs. It is vital to have more comprehensive agreed definitions of harm in the Bill.
I will reflect for a moment on what each of the four Cs means. Content harms are the most familiar. At the moment, children who go online are likely to encounter age-inappropriate content, including violent, gory and graphic communication, hate speech, terrorism, online prostitution, drugs, eating disorders and self-harm. Research also shows that exposure to different types of harmful content is interrelated: so, if a child reports seeing one type of disturbing content, it is likely that they have seen others as well.
Secondly, contact harms encourage harmful actions in the non-virtual world. A 10 year-old girl was left with burns after spraying an aerosol deodorant with the nozzle right up against her skin to create a freezing sensation. Jane Platt’s daughter Sarah, aged 15, was rushed to hospital in February 2020 after doing the “skull-breaker challenge”, which involves two people kicking the legs from under a third, making them fall over. These suggestions could never be offered in young people’s magazines or broadcast media.
Thirdly, there are conduct harms. In a global survey, 54% of young people—57% of girls and 48% of boys—reported having experienced online sexual harms before they were 18 years old, including within interaction with adults and being asked something sexually explicit or being sent sexually explicit content.
Finally, there are commercial harms. Over half of the games on Google Play now include loot boxes and more than 93% of games that feature loot boxes are marked suitable for children aged 12 years-plus.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others have argued, these harms are often cumulative and interrelated. The social media companies are the only ones not looking through a keyhole but monitoring social media in the round and able to assess what is happening, but evidence suggests that they will do not so until compelled by legislation. These amendments are a vital step forward in fulfilling the Bill’s purpose of providing additional protection from harm for children. I urge the Government to adopt them.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Bethell (Con): My Lords, I restate my commitment to Amendments 20, 93 and 123, which are in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness’s Amendment 74. It is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Knight. He put extremely well some key points about where there are gaps in the existing Bill. I will build on why we have brought forward these amendments in order to plug these gaps.
In doing so, I wish to say that it has been a privilege to work with the right reverend Prelate, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. We are not from the same political geographies, but that collaboration demonstrates the breadth of the political concern, and the strength of feeling across the Committee, about these important gaps when it comes to harms—gaps that, if not addressed, will put children at great risk. In this matter we are very strongly united. We have been through a lot together, and I believe this unlikely coalition demonstrates how powerful the feelings are.
It has been said before that children are spending an increasing amount of their lives online. However, the degree of that inflection point in the last few years has been understated, as has how much further it has got to go. The penetration of mobile phones is already around 75% of 10 year-olds—it is getting younger, and it is getting broader.
In fact, the digital world is totally inescapable in the life of a child, whether that is for a young child who is four to six years old or an older child who is 16 or 17. It is increasingly where they receive their education—I do not think that is necessarily a good thing, but that is arguable—it is where they establish and maintain their personal relationships and it is a key forum for their self-expression.
For anyone who suspects otherwise, I wish to make it clear that I firmly believe in innovation and progress, and I regard the benefits of the digital world as really positive. I would never wish to prevent children accessing the benefits of the internet, the space it creates for learning and building community, and the opportunities it opens for them. However, environments matter. The digital world is not some noble wilderness free from original sin or a perfect, frictionless marketplace where the best, nicest, and most beautiful ideas triumph. It is a highly curated experience defined by the algorithms and service agreements of the internet companies. That is why we need rules to ensure that it is a safe space for children.
Lord Allan of Hallam (LD): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford highlighted some really important challenges based on real experiences that families today are suffering—let us use the word as it should be—and made the case for clarity. I do not know how much we are allowed to talk in praise of EU legislation, but I am looking at the Digital Services Act—I have looked at a lot of EU legislation—and this Bill, and there is a certain clarity to EU regulation, particularly the process of adding recitals, which are attached to the law and explain what it is meant to do. That is sometimes missing here. I know that there are different legal traditions, but you can sometimes look at an EU regulation and the UK law and the former appears to be much clearer in its intent.
In effect, the Bill is Parliament setting out the terms of service for how we want Ofcom to regulate online services. We debated terms of service earlier. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. We are currently failing our own tests of simplicity and clarity on the terms of service that we will give to Ofcom.
As well as platforms, if ordinary people want to find out what is happening, then, just like those platforms with the terms of service, we are going to make them read hundreds of pages before they find out what this legislation is intended to do. We can and should make this simpler for children and parents. I was able to meet Ian Russell briefly at the end of our Second Reading debate. He has been an incredibly powerful and pragmatic voice on this. He is asking for reasonable things. I would love to be able to give a Bill to Ian Russell, and the other families that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford referred to, that they can read and that tells them very clearly how Parliament has responded to their concerns. I think we are a long way short of that simple clarity today.
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con, DCMS): Amendments 20, 74, 93 and 123, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, would mean a significant revising of the Bill’s approach to content that is harmful to children. It would set a new schedule of harmful content and risk to children—the 4 Cs—on the face of the Bill and revise the criteria for user-to-user and search services carrying out child safety risk assessments.
I start by thanking the noble Baroness publicly—I have done so privately in our discussions—for her extensive engagement with the Government on these issues over recent weeks, along with my noble friends Lord Bethell and Lady Harding of Winscombe. I apologise that it has involved the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, missing her stop on the train. A previous discussion we had also very nearly delayed her mounting a horse, so I can tell your Lordships how she has devoted hours to this—as they all have over recent weeks. I would like to acknowledge their campaigning and the work of all organisations that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, listed at the start of her speech, as well as the families of people such as Olly Stephens and the many others that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford mentioned.
I also reassure your Lordships that, in developing this legislation, the Government carried out extensive research and engagement with a wide range of interested parties. That included reviewing international best practice. We want this to be world-leading legislation, including the four Cs framework on the online risks of harm to children. The Government share the objectives that all noble Lords have echoed in making sure that children are protected from harm online.
Baroness Kidron (CB): I thank all the speakers. There were some magnificent speeches and I do not really want to pick out any particular ones, but I cannot help but say that the right reverend Prelate described the world without the four Cs. For me, that is what everybody in the Box and on the Front Bench should go and listen to.
I am grateful and pleased that the Minister has said that the Government are moving in this direction. I am very grateful for that but there are a couple of things that I have to come back on. First, I have swiftly read Amendment 205’s definition of harm and I do not think it says that you do not have to reach a barrier of harm; dissemination is quite enough. There is always the problem of what the end result of the harm is. The thing that the Government are not listening to is the relationship between the risk assessment and the harm. It is about making sure that we are clear that it is the functionality that can cause harm. I think we will come back to this at another point, but that is what I beg them to listen to. Secondly, I am not entirely sure that it is correct to say that the four Cs mean that you cannot have primary priority, priority and so on. That could be within the schedule of content, so those two things are not actually mutually exclusive. I would be very happy to have a think about that.
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