20 Mar 2023

What do Car Seat Belts and Instagram Have in Common?

MP Damian Collins, Chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, explains the bill and answers the question “why do we need online regulation?”

Damian Collins, Chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, is sitting in his Westminster office, talking about seat belts. 

“We believe having seat belts in cars is a good thing”, he says. “It doesn’t mean we’re anti-car – it’s just sensible” he shrugs.

Collins, Conversative MP for Folkstone and Hythe, has not taken on a new remit on road safety – rather he’s explaining why regulation is desperately needed to make the internet a safer place for everyone in the UK.

Warming to his theme, he expands the metaphor.

“Financial services products are regulated to ensure something that’s inherently a very risky product isn’t sold as something that’s very safe. Gambling is regulated to make sure people aren’t engaging in forms of gambling that are risky and aren’t aware it’s risky”.

With this he explains the Online Safety Bill is no more anti-technology than oxygen masks are anti-aeroplane. It’s just quite a good idea to have something in place – particularly to protect the most vulnerable in society from manipulation.

“These regulations are normal in other industries, but they haven’t yet come to the tech sector – as a sector it’s grown very fast and regulation hasn’t kept pace”, he explains.

But isn’t it too late? Big Tech platforms aren’t new flashes in the pan – they are well established Behemoths, and their influence is huge. To take action now seems a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has trotted on a flight to Australia.  

Not according to Collins – who cites GDPR as a good example.

“It shows with the Big Tech platforms that if you legislate, they will try and work within the legislation that’s been created. If you don’t legislate, they won’t do anything more than commercially suits them. Unless we create frameworks in law for them to work within, they won’t. We can’t leave it to their goodwill”.

Online safety bill

So what exactly is the Online Safety Bill, that Collins and his committee have created, aiming for?

“The core principles behind the bill are that the companies themselves – the platforms – are responsible for what happens on there. They are not the benign hosts of other people’s content”.

This issue – whether social media platforms are actually publishers, rather than hosts, has been debated fiercely in recent years. Collins firmly believes they are publishers – given they make decisions about what content to push where.

“They do behave like publishers” he says, emphatically. “The platforms curate the content – they select and promote it based on what they think will drive engagement. Engagement increases time on the platform. Time on the platform increases revenue. Your time is being sold to people who advertise to you. The whole system has been designed to keep you there for as long as possible”.

So how does the Online Safety Bill address this? Collins explains the bill makes technology companies responsible for the actions they take.

“It requires companies to spell out what their policies are to remove harmful content and to make sure they do it. It can also set minimum safety standards. So, if we don’t think your policies are good enough, we can take action against you”.

Without this, he says, the situations is “like the Wild West”.

“We find ourselves unable to take actions against things that take place on social media that would be an offence on other types of media. The bill specifies what should happen – then we have an independent regulator with powers to audit you”.

How will regulation impact competition?

In addition, the bill will address competition in Big Tech.

“Sometimes we think that Google and Apple and Amazon compete against each other, but many of the things they do are really private monopolies. If you’re an Apple customer you can only use the Appstore on Apple, for example” he explains.

Surely, we have free will here to choose alternative platforms, I ask?

Not when a critical mass of people is using something else, Collins points out.

“If you decide to switch from WhatsApp to Signal, for example, it might not actually be practical. My son’s football team is organised on WhatsApp, for example. It’s difficult to leave the services you use already”.

Collins is keen that this changes.

“There will be reforms around competition policy as well. We’ve already created a Digital Markets Unit within the Competition and Markets Authority. That will be to run investigations into looking at market dominance and market failure within the digital sector”.

A fairer, more transparent technology landscape is, according to Collins, on its way. Buckle up. 

Want to learn more about the Online Safety Bill? Schillings have teamed up with online safety charity, SWGfL, to produce an easy to understand guide to the upcoming legislation, aimed at young people, their parents and educators.