The government was urged to water down the powers of the Secretary of State in the Online Safety Bill this morning, suggesting it threatens legitimacy of the law moving forward.
In a DCMS sub-committee meeting, policy makers and online safety experts warned that the bill could grant Nadine Dorries an excessive power to set media regulator Ofcom’s strategic priorities and determine legal but harmful speech online.
As it stands, the Online Safety Bill will allow the watchdog to determine ‘codes of practice’ for social media firms, which will ultimately be signed off by the Culture Secretary.
While any move by the government minister will have a layer of scrutiny via parliament, the committee raised alarm bells about the “ping-pong” element of the current clause 40, which essentially allows the minister to infinitely reject Ofcom proposals “until they get what they want”, said Trustee at Carnegie UK and former civil servant William Perrin.
Dr Edina Harbinja of Aston Law School suggested that this dynamic could “compromise” the independence of the media watchdog, allowing ministers to “attract more power than would normally be appropriate with this kind of regulation”.
However, perhaps the reality is that the unelected nature of Ofcom means that it is the right course of action to allow a democratically elected Secretary of State to oversee the limits. It also seems like a preferred alternative to the current situation, which often results in tech companies satisfying shareholder needs rather than safety.
Nonetheless, Director of UK Policy at 5Rights Foundation Izzy Wick said the powers of Dorries should be “pared-down”, stating that it is crucial for the law’s legitimacy that Ofcom feels independent from the executive.
Speaking to City A.M., Head of Public Policy at the IEA Matthew Lesh said the “extraordinary discretionary powers” of the Secretary of State “could be used to seriously undermine freedom of expression, setting arbitrary limits on what is acceptable speech online, beyond the original intentions of Parliament”.
Lesh also said the scope of the bill could be expanded by future governments meaning that this individual power must be reined in.