The Online Safety Bill is awaiting Royal Assent and the briefing gives an overview of its parliamentary stages and how it has been amended – House of Commons.
The Online Safety Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 17th March 2022. The Government has said the Bill delivers its “manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression”.
The Bill has five policy objectives:
- to increase user safety online.
- to preserve and enhance freedom of speech online.
- to improve law enforcement’s ability to tackle illegal content online.
- to improve users’ ability to keep themselves safe online.
- to improve society’s understanding of the harm landscape.
The Bill [Bill 285 2021-22] had its second reading on 19 April 2022. The Bill was considered by a Public Bill Committee over seventeen sittings between 24th May and 28th June 2022.
Line by line examination of the Bill took place over thirteen sittings in June 2022. The Government added a new schedule 2 to the Bill to enable Ofcom to recover its initial costs by charging fees to service providers. Clause 129 was also amended by the Government so that Ofcom would have to consult the Information Commissioner’s Office before publishing guidance on using its enforcement powers.
The first day of report stage took place on 12th July 2022. Government amendments were also added to the Bill relating to journalistic content, adult safety duties, and illegal content duties.
Michelle Donelan became Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on 6th September 2022. She then reviewed the Bill’s adult safety duties. According to the DCMS, this was to ensure the right balance was struck “between protecting users from harmful content online and protecting users’ rights to freedom of expression”.
During this time, some MPs raised concerns about when the Bill’s remaining Commons stages would take place and whether it would have time to pass in the current parliamentary session.
The second day of Report stage took place on 5th December 2022. New Government clauses and amendments were agreed. These included a new clause to add an offence of “epilepsy trolling” to the Bill. The Commons also agreed several Government amendments to remove the proposed new harmful communications offence and the proposed repeal of existing harmful communication offences.
On 28th November 2022, the Government announced plans to amend the Bill, including the removal of the “legal but harmful” provisions for adults to protect freedom of expression. To enable debate on the amendments and new clauses, the Bill was recommitted to a Public Bill Committee. There were two sittings on 13th December 2022 and one sitting on 15th December 2022.
New Government clauses and amendments were made. Among other things – these removed the adult safety duties and introduced new user empowerment tools for adults – so people would be able to control what content they might see online. They would also require the largest companies to remove or restrict access to legal content only where this was consistent with their terms of service.
Progress of the Bill in the House of Lords
The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 18th January 2023 (HL Bill 87(Rev) (PDF). Lords second reading took place on 1 February 2023.
The Bill had sixteen sittings in Committee between 25th April and 22th June 2023 where Government amendments were agreed. These included a new clause that would make it an offence to encourage or assist another person to seriously self-harm. No Opposition amendments were agreed.
The Bill had its third reading on 6th September 2023 and the House of Lords agreed with the amendments on 19th September 2023.
The Bill is now awaiting Royal Assent.