On 2nd May 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in the fourth day of committee. The Bishop of Gloucester spoke in support of amendments to the bill that would “amend the safety duties to children to consider all harms, not just harmful content”, including amendment 261 in the name of the Bishop of Oxford:
The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, I support the amendments in this group that, with regard to safety by design, will address functionality and harms—whatever exactly we mean by that—as well as child safety duties and codes of practice. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Kidron, have laid things out very clearly, and I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, a happy birthday.
I also support Amendment 261 in the name of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Oxford and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. This amendment would allow the Secretary of State to consider safety by design, and not just content, when reviewing the regime.
As we have heard, a number of the amendments would amend the safety duties to children to consider all harms, not just harmful content, and we have begun to have a very interesting debate on that. We know that service features create and amplify harms to children. These harms are not limited to spreading harmful content; features in and of themselves may cause harm—for example, beautifying filters, which can create unrealistic body ideals and pressure on children to look a certain way. In all of this, I want us to listen much more to the voices of children and young people—they understand this issue.
Last week, as part of my ongoing campaign on body image, including how social media can promote body image anxiety, I met a group of young people from two Gloucestershire secondary schools. They were very good at saying what the positives are, but noble Lords will also be very familiar with many of the negative issues that were on their minds, which I will not repeat here. While they were very much alive to harmful content and the messages it gives them, they were keen to talk about the need to address algorithms and filters that they say feed them strong messages and skew the content they see, which might not look harmful but, because of design, accentuates their exposure to issues and themes about which they are already anxious. Suffice to say that underpinning most of what they said to me was a sense of powerlessness and anxiety when navigating the online world that is part of their daily lives.
The current definition of content does not include design features. Building in a safety by design principle from the outset would reduce harms in a systematic way, and the amendments in this group would address that need.
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