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Online Safety Bill does not go far enough to protect children, says Bishop of Manchester

07 February 2023


CHILDREN have not been adequately consulted on how to prevent their being harmed online, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has told peers considering new legislation to improve safety on social media and the internet.

During a Lords debate on the second reading of the Government’s Online Safety Bill, last week, Dr Walker said: “Can we really claim that this Bill serves to mitigate the harm that children face online when consultation of children has so far been lacking?”

He acknowledged that the Government planned to include the Children’s Commissioner for England as a statutory consultant when the communications regulator, Ofcom, draws up a code of practice, but said: “We can and should go further. In particular, we should centre our decisions on promoting children’s well-being, rather than on simply minimising harm.”

The Government, he said, should ensure that “any activity online through which children are groomed for criminal exploitation is monitored”. He suggested that a reporting mechanism should be devised so that such information could be shared with police.

Dr Walker was also concerned that the independence of Ofcom could be affected by giving ministers powers to direct the watchdog on its codes of practice, and to provide “tactical and strategic” guidance.

The relevant clauses were “not fit for purpose in their present form”, he said, and there should be “clear safeguards and parliamentary scrutiny for Secretary of State powers. Maintaining Ofcom’s autonomy in decision-making is critical to preserving freedom of expression more broadly. While the pace of technological innovation sometimes requires very timely response, the Bill places far too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State.”

He was also concerned that the Bill did not establish formal co-operation with other regulators, which, he said, would “ensure a good and effective enforcement of the various regulatory regimes”.

Later during the debate, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said that he was worried that the Bill failed to tackle disinformation. “Climate disinformation and medical disinformation inflict substantial harms on society, and must be included in user empowerment tools,” he said.

Many social media platforms were “unwilling to acknowledge, let alone prevent, the harms the Bill was aimed at. We know that there is an all too porous frontier between the virtual world and the physical world. The resulting harms damage real lives, real families, and real children.”

New developments such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) “demonstrate yet again that technology has no inherent precautionary principles. Without systemic checks and balances, AI in every field develops faster than society can respond. We are — and for ever will be — catching up with the technology.”

Lord Parkinson, a junior minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said that the Government recognised the importance of Ofcom’s independence. It already had strong relationships with other regulators, and the Bill would strengthen Ofcom’s ability to work closely with, and to disclose information to, other regulatory bodies.

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