Online Safety Bill – How the UK Safer Internet Centre Campaigned for Online Appeals Processes
The UK Safer Internet Centre works to ensure that people all the across the UK can feel better protected when they go online. Our work has seen the development of new services and channels for users to seek support for a number of issues that may be experienced within these spaces. We know through our own experience that more and more individuals need support when they go online and most importantly, protections need to be in place to appropriately safeguard an unpredictable and diverse digital landscape.
As such, the Online Safety Bill is considered one of the most important pieces of legislation to come out of the UK Government for many years. This Bill intends to cement the UK’s stance on protecting individuals when they go online through lawful obligations that platforms must abide by. It has been a long process and one that the UK Safer Internet Centre has advised on numerous times throughout its ongoing development, ensuring that all considerations were taken into account before being finalized this week. In this article, we explain our journey towards how we campaigned for stronger online appeals processes to be included as part of the Online Safety Bill.
Don’t Steal My Right to Appeal
Earlier this year, we were aware that the UK government was looking to remove an essential safeguard (that already existed in VSP regulation) from the Online Safety Bill. This safeguard essentially provided online users with an independent process to appeal decisions that were made by a number of online platforms in regards to harmful online content. It could ultimately support with getting online content removed, and indeed, allowed individuals to know they had somewhere else to go when they needed to make an appeal.
We had seen through our own service (Report Harmful Content) how essential it was that individuals had this process in place. Through 2021 -2022 alone, Report Harmful Content removed 87% of content that had already been reported direct to an online platform with no action. Without this system in place, it would remain online. Online harm can be devasting for those who are victimised and without this key safeguard, it was clear that users in the UK would find themselves more exposed to distressing content.
In response to this, the UK Safer Internet Centre started the Don’t Steal my Right to Appeal campaign in early May. We wanted to ensure that this obligation was included in the Online Safety Bill with the support of peers as well as the general public across social media. There were numerous debates about to happen within the House of Lords and the campaign was aimed to bring this necessity to the forefront of consideration.
House of Lords Debate
On Tuesday 16th May, the initial House of Lords debate took place. We were supported by peers Baroness Kidron (Crossbench Peer and Chair of 5Rights Foundation), Baroness Newlove (Deputy Speaker in House of Lords), Lord Allen of Hallam (Member of the House of Lords) and Lord Russell (Member of the House of Lords). All influential figures spoke passionately ahead of the debate to voice their concern about the removal of this obligation:
“The government has a duty to ensure this process is kept available. I’ve fought for victims’ rights for many years and they need to be protected and assisted in navigating these potentially life-changing issues. I don’t understand why it would be removed.”
‘’Independent redress is a key plank of any regulatory regime. Ombudsmen and independent complaint are available across all sectors, and they are part of the tech regulation regimes in other countries. Disbanding existing complaint mechanisms whilst failing to create an independent road to redress is an eyewatering omission in the bill.”
‘’Any outsider looking at it would say, “There is an injustice here. We can clearly see that an individual is being harmed. A similar piece of content might not be harmful to another individual, but to this individual it is”. In those circumstances, groups such as the South West Grid for Learning, with which I work frequently, perform an invaluable task. We should recognise that there is a network of non-governmental organisations in the United Kingdom that do this day in, day out.’’
‘’If we had an effective ombudsman service that dealt with these platforms day in, day out, they would be the most effective individuals to identify whether or not those companies were actually doing what they are meant to do in the law, because they would be dealing with them day in, day out, and would see how they were responding. They could then liaise with Ofcom in real time to tell it if some platforms were not performing as they should. I feel that that would be more effective.’’
House of Lords Response
Despite the clear illustration of the problem at hand and pressing questions from peers, the Lord’s representative Viscount Camrose was unable to fully clarify the position of where an individual could go if they are seeking redress on a specific incident. He remained confident that service providers would be able to respond effectively to user complaints under the watch of Ofcom’s enforcement but admitted that Ofcom would not be able to investigate on individual cases due to the volume of cases expected to be received.
‘’Given the likelihood of an overwhelming volume of complaints, as we have heard, Ofcom will not be able to investigate or arbitrate on individual cases. However, those complaints will be an essential part of Ofcom’s horizon-scanning, research, supervision and enforcement activity. They will guide Ofcom in deciding where to focus its attention.’’
Although disappointed with the responses, it was encouraging to see that there was increased awareness of what problems would arise within the management and response of individual cases. It was also highlighted that the proposed system would be ‘reviewed and assessed’ once implemented.
Independent Appeals Process Model
In response to the debate, the UK Safer Internet Centre drafted an open letter to gain further support from MPs and peers for our campaign. As part of this next stage, we drafted what an independent appeals process model would look like for the UK Government to implement, outlining expected levels of appeals and associated costs:
This model would act as the framework for what the Government could expect in terms of individual complaints towards online providers. We estimated that it would cost the UK Government £116 to action an appeal which would (in the majority of cases) result in a successful outcome i.e. content getting removed.
Nearing the reporting stage, the Government amended the proposed legislation to state that Ofcom would need to produce a report (up to a period of 2 years) that would assess and review the current system once in place and show evidence of whether an independent appeals process is warranted.
Baroness Newlove presented the model directly to the House of Lords urging them to once again prioritise independent appeals processes immediately within the Online Safety Bill whilst stating that a two-year delay period would cause thousands of individuals to suffer from unresolved instances of reporting online harm. This was supported by extensive media coverage highlighting the problem further towards the general public.
“The Government’s recent proposed amendment to the Online Safety Bill does not go far enough in protecting people from online harm. It is positive that the Government has recognised the issue by proposing this amendment but it is unacceptable that victims will have to wait for a two-year period for Ofcom to review whether an independent appeals process is required. We do not need to wait to see if this is required, we need to see this now.”
The Government responded by continuing to reaffirm confidence in the proposed system they were putting forward whilst still acknowledging the concerns that were being raised.
“The Online Safety Bill includes strong duties relating to content reporting and complaints, already benefiting users directly, providing them with effective methods of redress. However, we have listened to concerns and tabled new amendments that will require Ofcom to comprehensively review these provisions. If Ofcom finds the existing provisions are not sufficient, then the Government will be empowered to introduce regulations that impose a duty on the largest companies to provide alternative impartial dispute resolution procedures, similar to those in the current video-sharing platform regime.”
What was the outcome?
When the amendment was finally brought forward in the House of Lords, it was decided that Ofcom would report on their ongoing enforcement of harmful online content and would review whether an independent appeals process is needed after a period of two years.
While it wasn’t the concession that would actively ensure individuals would be supported when the Online Safety Bill is enforced, we welcomed the amended strategy to include the potential inclusion of an independent appeals process at a later time. This concession was recognition by the Government that this was one of the very few points that warranted change and indeed showed that the campaign was an ultimate success.
We fully anticipate that the report will conclude (as the selected committee concluded in 2021), that some platform’s reporting processes lack clarity and transparency and will further exemplify that an independent appeals process is warranted for the ongoing protection of users online.
The Don’t Steal my Right to Appeal campaign brought some much-needed awareness towards a significant gap within the future of online protection and support. From reaching millions of individuals across the UK, the term ‘independent appeals process’ resonates more so now than ever before. As well, the understanding of how important individual redress is within the online safety climate has been brought more into consideration and is likely to be a priority discussion point within the Online Safety Bill’s early enforcement.
Whilst this is a victory, we must stress the importance of not letting this slip – individuals will always need appropriate protection and support as technology continues to develop. We will engage with Ofcom, affect change going forward and will consistently put forward the voice of victims in this context. It is up to all of us to keep our online spaces as safe as they can be and the more protection we can offer, the UK can fulfill its pledge of being the safest place to be online.