8 October 2021

At both the Conservative and Labour party conferences, the ongoing scrutiny of the Online Safety Bill was a key issue. Chair of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee Damian Collins spoke across several events in Manchester, touching on online fraud, anonymity and the abuse experienced by MPs and other public figures.

Labour MPs highlighted that many issues need to be addressed in the Bill, from advertising to senior management liability, and to growing economic fraud. The prevailing attitude to the legislation seems positive, however, with the announcement at Conservative Conference from the Chancellor of 2,000 new AI scholarships and a doubling of the Turing fellowship, it is clear that the Government is looking to include digital upskilling as part of the levelling up agenda, however given its intentional breadth, this does not address concerns expressed by Labour MPs that digital skills policy is too fragmented across Government Departments. 
Key things to look out for in the coming months include the report from the draft Online Safety Bill Committee in December, as well as any alternations the new Technology Minister may make to the Bill before it is presented to Parliament as a full Bill. The reform of the electronic communications code also appears to be imminent, a detail that many telecom companies are likely to welcome. Joshua Bates and Harriet Ireland explore. 


Tech & media @Conservative conference 

Draft Online Safety Bill 
Committee Chair Damian Collins spoke at several fringe events about the draft Online Safety Bill, where he suggested that online scams and advertisements should be within scope. Technology Minister Chris Philp confirmed that he is assessing the Bill, but believes there are areas in which it could go further to protect people, especially children.

Online anonymity
The issue of anonymity on social media cropped up continually at the conference, with Damian Collins stating that anonymity created a host of problems on online platforms. He said the Committee is keen to look into it. Mark Francois MP directly called on Facebook to address anonymity on their platform, citing the abuse that public figures receive from anonymous accounts. 

Electronic communications code reform
Ex-Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman suggested that reform of the code is imminent, hinting that it could be on the agenda when Parliament returns from recess. He stated that the reform would not be about “ripping up the code” but about ensuring that it works as initially intended.

Newly appointed DCMS Secretary of State Nadine Dorries appeared at relatively few fringes but did speak about the need for the BBC to experience “real change” in order to represent the entire UK. Ms Dorries went on to state that the broadcaster needed a “less elitist and a less snobbish approach” to recruiting staff, but she claimed that she wanted a “constructive dialogue” with the broadcaster.

Tech and media @Labour conference

Chair of the BEIS Committee Darren Jones criticised the fragmentation of the Government’s policy on skills and complained that there was no clear agenda. Shadow Business Minister for Digital, Science and Technology Chi Onwurah similarly spoke of the need for Government to prioritise skills legislation, a sentiment that was echoed by many stakeholders. 

Online Safety Bill reservations
As a member of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, Mr Jones anticipated that a long to-do list would emerge from the Committee, including on economic crime and misinformation. Shadow DMCS Secretary Jo Stevens expressed concern about the intended additional regulatory responsibilities of Ofcom and questioned whether broadening their scope would weaken its power. 

Harms vs freedom of speech
Discussions on the Bill also led to debates about the trade-offs between protection of harms and free speech. Stakeholders seemed to argue that it the tech companies are at fault for an erosion of democratic debate, but parliamentarians were a little shyer in drawing a specific line between the two positions.

Speaking at an event on digital inclusion, Ms Onwurah added to the emerging Labour narrative of stepping back from nationalisation policy when she said: “It’s no longer Labour policy to nationalise BT, and it wouldn’t be a good use of taxpayer money.”


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