Joint Committee advice cannot fix flawed Online Safety Bill

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On 14 December 2021, the Joint Parliamentary Committee charged with scrutinising the draft Online Safety Bill published its report.

In a blog post published that day, ORG director Jim Killock highlighted the fundamental flaw in the government’s approach to tackling online harms. The draft Online Safety Bill attempts to address the symptoms of a dysfunctional system, without addressing its underlying cause: The “attention market.”

Thus we can see the ‘attention market’ as essentially being a problem of loss of control of personal data – a data protection issue – combined with lack of choice about how we interact with particular audiences – which is a competition issue.

Until control and choice are restored to users, the causes of harm online will remain.

The report of the Joint Committee acknowledges that the business model of the most successful social media companies, and the design of their platforms, contributes to the problem that the Bill hopes to solve (paragraphs 36-41). One interesting (and central) recommendation of the committee is that the new law should refer to “regulated activity” rather than “harmful content” (para 68). This would ensure that Ofcom were able to scrutinise, and issue Codes of Practice for, the algorithmic amplification and frictionless content technology (for example, auto-play on YouTube) that sends unwitting users towards extremist content and disinformation. The committee even goes so far as to itemise certain design features that should be named on the face of the Bill.

Unfortunately, the committee does not place a similar emphasis on restoring control of personal data to the user. It does suggest that Ofcom liaise with the Information Commissioner on whether ‘data profiling’ is legal (para 112), but other recommendations on user-data appear more concerned with enabling law enforcement to unmask anonymous users (para 94) rather than a wider concern for privacy rights.

The Committee also appears content with the protections offered by the UK GDPR, and says nothing about the fact that the government is currently manoeuvring to water-down those protections. This misplaced faith has been further undermined by the recently published review of the Human Rights Act, which further

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