no tracking, just search

Online Safety: Our Feedback to Government

Posted: 03 August, 2021 · Tweet

The UK Government published its draft Online Safety Bill in May 2021. Much has been written since but virtually all of it has been about social media; that being itself a subset of the category called “user-to-user services” defined in the Bill. Services such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube are no doubt targets to be regulated. But we should also expect Mumsnet, Element, Substack, to mention a few of an expected ~24,000 businesses, to become regulated by Ofcom.

It might easily apply to your own web service, however small. Certainly those with a “significant” UK user base and online safety risks (notably via user generated content) may well have a “knock on the door” by Ofcom.

All regulated services will be required to carry out risk assessments and duties to prevent activities that are illegal. That, of course, includes terrorism content covered under existing legislation, and similarly, child sexual exploitation and abuse content.

Much of the controversy about the Bill surrounds the inclusion of harmful content; defined as that capable of causing “significant adverse physical or psychological impact”. “Lawful but awful” is being used by many as a catchphrase. Regulated platforms will have a duty of care to moderate illegal as well as such “lawful but awful” content. Simultaneously they will also need to safeguard the “right to freedom of expression and privacy”, to protect “content of democratic importance” and “journalistic content”. Significantly “recognised news publishers” are to be exempted.

The proposals have been welcomed by safety campaigners, championed by the tech safety sector, plus some celebrities and many MPs. They have also understandably come under fire from many civil rights organisations, lawyers, and technical experts.

Ofcom will have the power to scrutinise companies and punish transgressors; with the greater of £18m or 10% of worldwide revenue. And named senior managers can face convictions. This health and safety approach to online behaviour, combined with the threat of big penalties, is viewed by many as a dangerous lurch towards censorship and removal of legal content. Campaigns include “Legal to Say, Legal to Type” and #SaveOnlineSpeech.

What nobody seems to be writing about is a second category of online services that will be regulated: “search services”. Mojeek will mostly likely be regulated in the same way as Google. We have thus written to the UK government to articulate our concerns about, and constructive suggestions for, this Bill as it relates to search engines.

Whilst this is a UK Bill, it is likely to be noted, copied and adapted in other countries. India is arguably ahead of the game and is already attempting to regulate online platforms in an apparently aggressive fashion ("Intermediary Rules 2021" in force, since June 2021). Australia has just passed its own Online Safety Bill. Canada is pushing through online harms legislation without much consultation, and the EU is working on the Digital Services Act. And, of course, changes to section 230 are being considered and hotly debated in the United States.

As far as we know, almost no one else has written about the UK Bill and the potential attack on your freedom to search. Please let us know if we have missed something or you have views you wish to share (and use hashtag #FreedomToSearch).

In the attached PDF we are openly publishing our response to the DCMS consultation exercise. It is very important to note that for “search services”, a duty of care is required only for harmful to children content. User-to-user services, for example social media, will have a duty of care for content which is deemed harmful to adults and children.

We summarise the main points of our response below:

  1. As we note and demonstrate through evidence the draft Bill does not seem to reflect an understanding of the state of the search market. We note that a member of the House of Lords, and former Facebook executive, commented that there may have been an assumption that web search is an issue only for large companies.
  2. Smaller social networks will be in a different tier to larger ones such as Facebook. But the proposed Bill would have all search engine companies in the same tier. Google and Mojeek, for instance, would have the same duties.
  3. Given our status as one of very few search engine companies globally we are available to provide insights into the mystique about search infrastructure, algorithms and design choices, so that there is more effective and practical implementation of this important Bill.
  4. We pointed out several cases where the evidence cited in the impact assessment for small companies does not apply to search services.
  5. We also pointed out the effect on competition of Germany’s NetzDG does not translate across to this draft Bill, at least for search.
  6. The assumed costs of compliance for small/medium low/medium risk companies is £104. We point out how this is cannot be right for any responsible company.
  7. We applaud and appreciate the support provided by the government to TAT (Tech Against Terrorism). Their remit to help companies, and smaller ones in particular, in dealing with online safety is vital and mitigates the damage to competition that this Bill brings.
  8. Regarding child safety the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) is a vital UK based charity which helps Mojeek and other companies globally to protect children by identifying illegal child sexual exploitation and abuse content. We have urged the government to support the IWF further, so that it provides the equivalent level of support to TAT for smaller companies.
  9. TAT works with GIFCT (Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism) which is itself supported by Big Tech and the two US search giants Google and Microsoft. Both those companies have committed, through GIFCT and the Christchurch Call, to “support smaller platforms as they build capacity”. We have asked the government to hold them to this in the long term, and to ensure they deliver more shared safety resources. The contributions made on search are so far very limited. Such actions can obviously help all search companies and society.

You can read our full response here