Online Safety Bill: Bishop of Oxford supports amendments on hiding harmful content online

On 9th May 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in Committee. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in support of amendments to the bill tabled by Baroness Morgan of Coates that would institute an opt out option for harmful content as a default on online platforms:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, in her very moving and personal speech. I am sorry that I was unable to speak to the previous group of amendments, some of which were in my name, because, due to unavoidable business in my diocese, I was not able to be present when that debate began late last Tuesday. However, it is very good to be able to support this group of amendments, and I hope tangentially to say something also in favour of risk assessment, although I am conscious that other noble Lords have ably made many of the points that I was going to make.

My right reverend friend the Bishop of Gloucester has added her name in support of amendments in this group, and I also associate myself with them—she is not able to be here today. As has been said, we are all aware that reaching the threshold of 18 does not somehow award you with exponentially different discernment capabilities, nor wrap those more vulnerable teenagers in some impermeable cotton wool to protect them from harm.

We are united, I think, in wanting to do all we can to make the online space feel safe and be safe for all. However, there is increasing evidence that people do not believe that it is. The DCMS’s own Public Attitudes to Digital Regulation survey is concerning. The most recent data shows that the number of UK adults who do not feel safe and secure online increased from 38% in November/December 2021 to 45% in June/July 2022. If that trend increases, the number will soon pass half, with more than half of UK adults not feeling safe and secure online.

It is vital that we protect society’s most vulnerable. When people are vulnerable through mental illness or other challenges, they are surely not able to protect themselves from being exposed to damaging online content by making safe choices, as we have just heard. In making this an opt-in system, we would save lives when people are at a point of crisis.

In listening to our debates, I sometimes feel that we have not grasped in our deliberations as a Committee the inequality of arms which exists in an individual faced with the entire internet. We have heard analogies this afternoon of a bookshop, and we might think of a supermarket. We might also think of a debate in the Athenian Agora many years ago, when people debated person to person, with an equality of arms and intellect. There is no such equality of arms when it comes to exposure to the internet and social media. I will categorise five things which break this equality down—they all begin with “A”, if your Lordships like alliteration.

The first is advertising. The whole expertise of the advertising industry, commercially driven through applications, places its weight on the individual. The accumulated skill of how to sell more to more people is focused and channelled through all the social media we are concerned with regulating.

The second is access. Through the mobile phone in the 19 year-old’s pocket, and in mine, social media and app producers have access 24/7, in the most private and intimate moments of our lives, to influence and shape our minds. There is no physical boundary of going to a bookshop; it is present wherever we are.

The third “A” is access to our data. The people who are pushing things at us know more about us than the closest members of our families, because they study every purchase. Every click is interpreted. Every inquiry that we search is channelled back into access to our data and used to pressure the individual and to shape their choices in the offline world as well as the online one.

Fourthly, all this information and skill is then channelled algorithmically and driven by the power of algorithms. It is multiplied, and multiplied again, in ways that no consumer fully understands or can measure.

Fifthly, we are now on the threshold of much of the content to which we and others are exposed being energised and powered by artificial intelligence, so that the problems we have seen to date are multiplying and will be multiplied hugely in the coming decade.

I believe that people will look back on the first two decades of the 21st century—the time that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to, from 2003, when we did not envisage what was coming, to this Bill in 2023—as a time of complete madness. They will see it as a time when we created such harmful, toxic environments—not only for children and young people but for adults—that it affected the mental health of a generation profoundly. This Bill is an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and to remedy that. The user empowerment tools and adult risk assessments offer us very important tools. We must take this opportunity and fight back against this inequality of arms. I support these amendments.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie (Con): As the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, pointed out, survey after survey demonstrates how offline vulnerabilities translate into the online world, and Ofcom’s own evidence suggests that people with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, mental health issues and others can be classed as being especially vulnerable online.

The Government recognise that vulnerable groups are at greater risk online, because in its previous incarnations, this Bill included greater protection for such groups. We spoke in a previous debate about the removal of the “legal but harmful” provisions and the imposition of the triple shield. The question remains from that debate: does the triple shield provide sufficient protection for these vulnerable groups?

As I have said previously this afternoon, user empowerment tools are the third leg of the triple shield, but they put all the onus on users and no responsibility on the platforms to prevent individuals’ exposure to harm. Amendments 36, 37 and 38A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seek simply to make the default setting for the proposed user empowerment tools to be “on”. I do not pretend to understand how, technically, this will happen, but it clearly can, because the Bill requires platforms to ensure that this is the default position to ensure protection for children. The default position in those amendments protects all vulnerable people, and that is why I support them—unlike, I fear, Amendment 34 from my noble friend Lady Morgan, which lists specific categories of vulnerable adults. I would prefer that all vulnerable people be protected from being exposed to harm in the first place.

Nobody’s freedom of expression is affected in any way by this default setting, but the overall impact on vulnerable individuals in the online environment would, I assure your Lordships, be significant.

Baroness Kidron (CB): We already have default settings, and we are pretending that this is a zero-sum game. The default settings at the moment are profiling us, filtering us and rewarding us; and, as the right reverend Prelate said in his immensely powerful speech, we are not starting at zero. So I do share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, about who gets to choose—some of us on this side of the debate are saying, “Can we define who gets to choose? Can Parliament choose? Can Ofcom choose? Can we not leave this in the hands of tech companies?” So on that I fully agree. But we do have default settings already, and this is a question of looking at some of the features as well as the content. It is a weakness of the Government’s argument that it keeps coming back to the content rather than the features, which are the main driver of what we see.

The second thing I want to say—this is where I am anxious about the triple shield—is: does not knowing you are being abused mean that you are not abused? I say that as someone with some considerable personal abuse. I have my filter on and I am not on social media, but my children, my colleagues and some of the people I work with around the world do see what is said about me—it is a reputational thing, and for some of them it is a hurtful thing, and that is why I am reluctant in my support. However, I do agree with all the speakers who have said that our duty is to start with those people who are most vulnerable.

I want to mention the words of one of the 5Rights advisers—a 17 year-old girl—who, when invited to identify changes and redesign the internet, said, “Couldn’t we do all the kind things first and gradually get to the horrible ones?” I think that this could be a model for us in this Chamber. So, I do support the noble Baroness.

Baroness Bull (CB): I do not have all the answers, but I do think we heard a very powerful point from the right reverend Prelate. In doing the same for everybody, we do not ensure equality. We need to have varying approaches, in order that everybody has equality of access. As the Bill stands, it says nothing about vulnerable adults. It simply assumes that all adults have full capacity, and I think what these amendments seek to do is find a way to recognise that simply thinking about children, and then that everybody aged 18 is absolutely able to take care of themselves and, if I may say, “suck it up”, is not the world we live in. We can surely do better than that.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con): I rise to speak because I have been so moved by the speeches, not least the right reverend Prelate’s speech. I would like just to briefly address the “default on” amendments and add my support. Like others, on balance I favour the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, but would willingly throw my support behind my noble friend Lady Morgan were that the preferred choice in the Chamber.

I would like to simply add two additional reasons why I ask my noble friend the Minister to really reflect hard on this debate. The first is that children become teenagers, who become young adults, and it is a gradual transition—goodness, do I feel it as the mother of a 16 year-old and a 17 year-old. The idea that on one day all the protections just disappear completely and we require our 18 year-olds to immediately reconfigure their use of all digital tools just does not seem a sensible transition to adulthood to me, whereas the ability to switch off user empowerment tools as you mature as an adult seems a very sensible transition.

Lord Clement-Jones (LD): .The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, the right reverend Prelate and, notably, my noble friend Lady Parminter have made a brilliant case for their amendment, and it is notable that these amendments are supported by a massive range of organisations. They are all in this area of vulnerable adults: the Mental Health Foundation, Mind, the eating disorder charity Beat, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Psychological Society, Rethink Mental Illness, Mental Health UK, and so on. It is not a coincidence that all these organisations are discussing this “feature”. This is a crucial aspect of the Bill.

Again, I was very much taken by some of the descriptions used by noble Lords during the debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said that young people do not suddenly become impervious to content when they reach 18, and he particularly described the pressures as the use of AI only increases. I thought the way the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, described the progression from teenagehood to adulthood was extremely important. There is not some sort of point where somebody suddenly reaches the age of 18 and has full adulthood which enables then to deal with all this content.

Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab): The noble Lord, Clement-Jones, with Amendments 36 and 37, to which I added my name, is essentially going back to some of the debate about safety by design. As the right reverend Prelate set out so powerfully, the platforms are designed to maximise engagement, time spent on their site, data collection and the targeting of advertising. It is about their business model, not our safety. Artificial intelligence has no ethical constraint, and these user empowerment tools allow us to shift the algorithm in our favour, including to make us safer. To toggle them off is to side with the business model regardless of adult safety; to toggle them on is to side with adults having a more pleasant but slightly less engaging experience. Whose side is the Minister on? We look forward to hearing.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con): I was struck by the speech by the right reverend Prelate about the difference between what people encounter online, and the analogy used by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, about a bookshop. Social media is of a different scale and has different features which make that analogy not a clean or easy one. We will debate in other groups the accumulated threat of features such as algorithms, if the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, will allow me to go into greater detail then, but I certainly take the points made by both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, in their contributions.

Baroness Morgan of Cotes (C0n): My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much indeed, and thank all noble Lords who have taken part. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, this has been an important debate—they are all important, of course—but I think this has really got to the heart of parts of the Bill, parts of why it has been proposed in the first place, and some choices the Government made in their drafting and the changes they have made to the Bill. The right reverend Prelate reminded us, as Bishops always do, of the bigger picture, and he was quite right to do so. There is no equality of arms, as he put it, between most of us as internet users and these enormous companies that are changing, and have changed, our society. My noble friend was right—and I was going to pick up on it too—that the bookshop example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is, I am afraid, totally misguided. I love bookshops; the point is that I can choose to walk into one or not. If I do not walk into a bookshop, I do not see the books promoting some of the content we have discussed today. If they spill out on to the street where I trip over them, I cannot ignore them. This would be even harder if I were a vulnerable person, as we are going to discuss.

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