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House of Commons Hansard
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Online Harms Legislation
13 February 2020
Volume 671

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans for online harms legislation.

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I thank my hon. Friend for their question on this important issue.

The Government are taking significant action to tackle the issue of online harm and make this country the safest place in the world to go online. There is widespread consensus that online platforms must do more to make sure that their services are safe for all users, particularly children, while also promoting freedom of expression online. Strikingly, far fewer parents now believe that the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks, with the proportion falling from 65% of parents in 2015 to 55% last year. That is a worrying trend that we must address. We can keep the benefits of the digital economy only if we can improve trust and confidence in technology and tackle what erodes it.

The “Online Harms” White Paper proposed a statutory duty of care, enforced by an independent regulator. Since its publication, we have consulted on our proposals and announced our intention to legislate in the Queen’s Speech. The evidence given during the consultation will help us to get the balance right between an open and vibrant internet and one where users are protected from harm.

Yesterday, as set out in a written ministerial statement, the Government published our initial consultation response. The response set out our proposed direction of travel following the consultation, and we will publish a full response in the spring, before bringing forward legislation in this Session. I wish to bring to the attention of the House four specific points raised during the consultation.

First, we must ensure that in aiming to make the internet safer we do not inadvertently stifle legitimate debate. We will place safeguards in legislation, giving companies and the regulator the responsibility to protect users’ rights, including freedom of expression, online. We will introduce greater transparency about content removals so that users can appeal if their content is taken down.

Secondly, we know that greater protections are needed to keep young people safe online. The new regulatory framework will require companies to take steps to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content and protect them from other harms.

Thirdly, some consultation responses raised concerns that the regulation would place undue burdens on sites where opportunities for harm to occur are limited. Our legislation will be proportionate and risk-based, affecting only those companies in respect of which there is a risk of harm. The duty of care will apply only to businesses facilitating the sharing of user-generated content, for example, through comments or video sharing, and only around 5% of UK businesses provide these functions.

Finally, the regulator will ensure that in-scope companies have appropriate systems and processes in place to protect users from harm, especially children and the most vulnerable. We are minded to appoint Ofcom to regulate online harms, building on its experience and expertise to make further progress on this important issue. We also yesterday appointed Ofcom to regulate video-sharing platforms under the audiovisual media services directive, which aims to reduce harmful content on these sites. That will provide quicker protection for some harms and activities and will act as a stepping stone to the full online harms regulatory framework.

We will publish our full consultation response in the spring, setting out further details of our plans ahead of legislation and, alongside this, the Home Office will publish voluntary interim codes of practice to set out what companies should do to prevent terrorist use of the internet, or child sex exploitation and abuse on their platforms.

We are confident that this publication and the other plans that we are driving forward will help to make Britain the safest place to be online and the best digital economy in the world. No other country in the world is working faster to foster tackling this vital issue.

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I thank the Minister for his initial response. A regulator is nothing without the ability genuinely to disrupt the business practices of a firm that it is regulating. What assurances can he give the House that the proposed Ofcom plus regulator can genuinely bring social media companies to account with simply a bit of public shaming and fines? Does he agree that there needs to be a tech levy set at 2% of UK revenues in order properly to fund this super-regulator?

Will the Minister confirm that there will be a legal duty on companies to inform users of their personal privacy rights? Would not the new regulatory framework benefit from pre-legislative scrutiny by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, as well as from allowing the Committee a veto over the appointment or dismissal of the head of the regulator, in exactly the same way that the Treasury Committee has over the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility? Will the Minister assure the House that legislation will be forthcoming this calendar year, as we have been waiting a very long time for this?

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The Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right that regulation without teeth is not a valuable form of regulation. We will be talking to Ofcom about what it believes the most effective form of regulation will be, and we will obviously be feeding in our own thoughts as well. The decision that we made yesterday allows us to start having those formal conversations, and Ofcom to start talking to the industry as well. In the same vein, I agree with my hon. Friend that a levy has been much discussed. He mentions one figure. We will obviously have to discuss with Ofcom what it considers to be the level of resources that it needs, and I do not use that as a way of trying to weasel out of what he suggests by any means. It is a very interesting suggestion.

There will be, of course, a legal duty on companies to be more transparent with their customers. We are talking about transparency already in some working groups that I have been chairing. My hon. Friend mentions pre-legislative scrutiny. It is, of course, a tradition, although not a necessity, that full pre-legislative scrutiny in one Session would require the Bill to be introduced in the following Session, and this Government are not content to introduce that kind of delay. However, he did in fact mention pre-legislative scrutiny by his Committee, rather than in the formal way, and it is an interesting suggestion. I look forward to working closely with him on what the best form of scrutiny looks like.

Similarly, another interesting suggestion is what role my hon. Friend’s Committee might play when it comes to the regulator of this. We have compared regulation of financial services when we have been thinking about this, and he is right to make a comparison. It is another interesting suggestion. I look forward to working with him and his Committee—I hope. [Interruption.] I will put my phone on speaker on the Dispatch Box. I look forward to working with him, to be serious, because this is an area where I hope we can form genuine cross-party consensus on what is the right way forward without introducing a moment’s delay.

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Order. I will allow up to 45 minutes on this urgent question, but first we will hear from Chi Onwurah.

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Molly Russell was only 14 when she killed herself after viewing posts on Instagram. David Turnball was 75 when he lost his pension through an unregulated financial product that was prominently advertised by Google. Last year TikTok live-streamed a teenager’s suicide. Misinformation on the coronavirus is spreading on social media. An online abuse offence against a child is recorded every 16 minutes. When we talk about online harms, these are real people, real stories, real pain and real hurt.

Before becoming an MP, I was an engineer. I helped build out the internet. I am proud of my work, which enabled people to better communicate and connect, but it has been clear for years that the internet requires regulation. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, has said it; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has said it; and Facebook has said it.

This response on online harms is overdue, weak and ultimately ineffective. Social media companies will have a duty of care, which Ofcom will regulate—good. Tech companies always had a duty of care, in my opinion, but the first online suicide was over 10 years ago, and still victims await legislation. When will these proposals be law?

Instead of creating a new regulator, the Government have given responsibility to Ofcom. I like Ofcom—I used to work for it—but in the last ten years it has had the BBC, postal services and more added to its remit. What additional resource will it have? What powers of enforcement will it have? Companies will regulate complaints themselves, although we are told that it will be transparent—how? The transparency working group has been mentioned, so could we have some transparency on that?

New online harms are emerging. Just a few weeks ago the smart doorbell system Ring was hacked, putting children at risk. Algorithms, facial recognition and artificial intelligence are not addressed—why not? In a week’s time the European Union will announce measures for digital services regulation. Has the Minister spoken with the EU about alignment, and if not, why not?

Online harms cause untold damage in the real world. If the Minister cannot give clear answers to these questions, victims past and present will have lost out in another wasted year.

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I welcome the tone of the hon. Lady on this. These are hugely important issues that affect real people. We call them online harms, but they are profoundly real for the people affected. She is right that legislation is overdue; Parliament should have acted many years ago to address the issue. But the reality is that the duty of care that, in her opinion, social media companies have to their users will be put into law by this Parliament. That is progress, and I think we should welcome it.

We will bring forward the legislation in this Session. We will produce the full consultation response by the spring. We will be going as fast as possible. The hon. Lady wants us to go faster. I welcome the tone that she has struck, but I know that she would not want us to rush and then introduce half-formed legislation that would not work. If we committed to pre-legislative scrutiny, we would be introducing the legislation in the next Session, and that is too long a delay.

I will try to answer some of the many entirely legitimate questions that the hon. Lady asked. She is right that the NSPCC and Facebook have welcomed this. The industry is ready and ripe for regulation, and we should work together to deliver it. Like the Chair of the Select Committee, she asked what additional resources and enforcement powers Ofcom would have. We will ensure that Ofcom has the resources and the enforcement powers that it says are going to be the most effective. I hope that will be a transparent and open conversation.

The hon. Lady mentioned the internet of things, which is an important area. Harms that derive from being online are not limited to social media; they now extend to the doorbells she mentioned and a whole host of other things. She will know that this Government have already committed, through what we call “secure by design”, to legislate on that. I look forward to our bringing that forward by whatever vehicle as soon as we possibly can. That is why we have talked about it already.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the digital services regulation. Of course, we work in consultation with countries around the world. This is a global industry. Britain is taking the lead; it is right that an open and liberal democracy takes the lead on these difficult decisions. We will do this as fast as we possibly can. We will not be delayed by the activities of other countries, but we will work with them.

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The Science and Technology Committee in the last Parliament conducted a significant inquiry into the impact of social media on young people’s health, so I welcome the fact that the Minister has committed to the principal recommendation of the Committee’s report—that Ofcom should be given the responsibility for regulation in this area. But may I press him on the timing of the statutory powers for Ofcom? There is no time to lose, as the Committee’s report and Members today have made clear. I welcome the fact that the legislation will be introduced in this Session. When it comes to pre-legislative scrutiny, I hope that he will take into account the precedent set by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in relation to the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill, which was introduced very quickly within a Session and included all the recommendations of the Committee. There is a big opportunity for the work of both the Science and Technology Committee and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee to inform rapid legislation that will give great comfort to our constituents.

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I have a great deal of time for the Science and Technology Committee, having served on it myself. This is an important area that cuts across a number of different Select Committees. If we are going to pay attention to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, it is right that we should also look at how we can work with others—while not slowing things down—because this is a very important issue. We will continue that conversation with my right hon. Friend as soon as possible. As I said earlier, we will work with Ofcom to ensure its powers are in legislation as quickly as possible, but also that those powers are developed enough to ensure that they are really effective and persist beyond the current generation of technology, because we surely try to make legislation that does not need to be remade every year.

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It is important that we respond to the new cross-border challenges that have arisen as a result of our society moving increasingly online. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the Scottish Government’s internet safety plan for children, and I hope that he will co-operate with the devolved Administrations on this issue.

The consultation on this area closed last summer, and it has to be said that a delay of concrete proposals until spring does not suggest an atmosphere of urgency. Will the Minister commit to no further delays in Government action past the spring deadline and ensure that the tech companies do not dictate the pace of reform? Moreover, will he confirm whether the Government will be giving Ofcom powers to make directors of social media companies personally liable—including facing prosecution for harmful content—and that these proposals have not been removed from the Government’s plans in the face of lobbying by tech execs? Does he agree that, although tightening regulations in this way is necessary, we also need regulations to close the loopholes that are seeing dark money being funnelled to political parties and campaigns in this country in a manner which, if it had happened in other states, would have the whole House of Commons united in condemnation?

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I look forward to working with the Scottish Government on their plans. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not a devolved matter, but it is important that we listen to all voices. What we did yesterday kicked off a process that I hope will be very collaborative, and we will work with as many stakeholders as we can possibly find.

I want to be absolutely clear that, whatever the hon. Gentleman might have read in some newspapers, not a single word of the response that we published yesterday was watered down at the request of tech companies. We have gone faster than many have suggested we might have been able to, and we will certainly not be delaying. My appetite is only for us to go as quickly as we possibly can.

The hon. Gentleman talked about director liability, which is something that has been effective—in financial services regulation, for instance. I look forward to looking at all possible options when it comes to sanctions. I want them to be as effective as possible, and nothing is off the table, whatever he might have read. I will leave his comments on financial matters, as they are issues that would be covered by other legislation.

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My hon. Friend has already helpfully recognised that what the regulator in this space requires is the legislative authority to act, the personnel and resources needed to act, and, of course, the sanctions and powers needed to act. Is it not also right, though, that the urgency in giving the regulator those things is not just the need, great though it is, to protect vulnerable people, but the fact that this country could and should lead globally on this, and we will only do so if we get on with it?

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I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. and learned Friend did as Secretary of State in leading this agenda. He is absolutely right. Ofcom needs the powers and resources to get this job done properly, but it also needs to make sure that we seize every possible opportunity that comes from the digital economy. Getting that balance right, alongside freedom of expression, is the priority that he set as Secretary of State. We will continue to do that, and we will not go any slower than we absolutely need to.

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Two years ago, in debating the Bill that became the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, we discussed the problem that weapons that cannot be lawfully purchased in the UK are nevertheless freely available to buy online. Will the changes the Minister envisages address that specific problem?

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Obviously, the duty of care is wide-ranging. I am conscious that we would expect economic harms, for instance, to be picked up through other legislation. Similarly, the Offensive Weapons Act itself picks up some other areas. This is one of the issues that we have to look at to make sure that there are none of the loopholes that the right hon. Gentleman describes. It is a valuable point.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that it is precisely Ofcom’s experience in broadcasting and telecoms that make it ideally placed to take on this regulatory role of duty of care?

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Yes, I absolutely do agree. Ofcom is perfectly placed to balance our absolutely unequivocal commitment to free speech with the need to regulate an industry that is, as I said, ripe for regulation.

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Could the Minister share some more details about the scope of this announcement? Specifically, does it cover threats to democracy and abuses of the electoral system that have been examined in the Lords by Lord Puttnam’s Committee, and will Ofcom be given future-proofing powers to adjust regulations not only to take account of technological changes but to protect against future threats that do not yet exist?

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The work that the Cabinet Office is doing on protecting democracy is a hugely important, albeit complementary, part of the process, rather than something that is covered by online harms. Our intention is that the regulations and the codes of practice that Ofcom will draw up will be as future-proofed as possible, because we do not want to be coming back time and again having this debate in a whole series of forums. We need to get on with this.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on tabling this urgent question, and the Government on their response. Today’s focus has very much been on online content and protecting children, but will the Minister comment on how the internet continues to be used by jihadi extremists to recruit future terrorists? The Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill went through yesterday, so there is more money for counter-terrorism, policing, probation and rehabilitation. But ultimately, until we are able to remove harmful online content that is being used for recruitment, further terrorist attacks, I am afraid, will take place.

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to say that the online harms Bill is being drawn up jointly with my colleagues in the Home Office to tackle exactly the areas that he suggests. The Bill also has a hugely important component on tackling disinformation, which is related to what he is talking about, albeit, I appreciate, not the same thing. It is important that we mount what we might call a full-spectrum response when it comes to these threats.

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Nearly two years ago, the then Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box justifying the cancellation of the second phase of the Leveson inquiry. His rationale for that was that the harm was no longer in print media but instead all online. I asked why we could not deal with both, and he brushed me off, but now it looks as though we are in danger of the Government not yet having done either. The Minister says that he does not want to rush things, but I gently say to him that there is no danger of anyone accusing the Government of having done that. He gave lots of very welcome detail today, but has not answered the one really burning question—when will we see draft legislation?

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I say gently back to the hon. Gentleman that plenty of tech companies would like us to go slower on this. I understand his point, but as I have said, no other country in the world is going faster to tackle online harms. We will submit a full Government response in the spring, and we will introduce legislation in this Session.

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Does the Minister agree that we need to urge tech companies immediately to make it much easier for parents to set parental controls, to keep their children safer?

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Yes, I agree that the role and responsibilities of parents are hugely important. Some social media companies have made significant progress in that area and done good work in schools, but part of our media literacy work will focus specifically on parents, to ensure that they know exactly what is the right way for children to use the internet safely.

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This week saw celebrations to promote the safe and positive use of digital technology for children and young people on Safer Internet Day. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the work of the UK Safer Internet Centre, which works with more than 1,000 schools, children and businesses to make the internet a safer place for children and young people? Does he agree that the UK Government must do all they can to support that important work?

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I join the hon. Lady in congratulating all the work that goes on around Safer Internet Day. The Secretary of State attended the main conference on Tuesday, and I also appeared, albeit by video link. We are committed to working with all the charities and organisations that have made Safer Internet Day such a success, but with this legislation, we also recognise that it is important to go further.

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I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as the director of a company that provides technology solutions to help schools deal with online harms. Will the Minister applaud the work of teachers and senior leadership teams in helping young people to avoid the excesses of online harm? I encourage him to provide focus on protecting freedom of speech and prioritising the need to tackle the harm being done to our minors. May I urge him to provide clarity on the metrics and timetable for this regulation, so that the creativity of our technology companies can be put to good use as well as to profitable use?

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My hon. Friend is right to highlight the extreme contribution of teachers in this area. They have adapted remarkably quickly to a changing threat, and I pay tribute to them. He is right to imply that many of the solutions to challenges posed by technology will be driven by technology companies themselves, and we have already worked with companies such as SuperAwesome to ensure that that happens as much as possible. He is also right that legislation cannot come soon enough.

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During the consultation period, Samaritans highlighted the need for international action to create a suicide-safer internet, in their words. What action do the Government propose to lead that international co-operation and ensure a reduction in suicides?

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The hon. Lady is right that pro-suicide content online has to be a key target for this sort of legislation. She is also right that we have to think of this as a global conversation, because these are often global companies. I would be happy to meet her to talk about what she thinks is the best way forward, because that is one of the most egregious consequences of the lack of regulation online.

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I very much welcome this world-leading approach, but can my hon. Friend reassure me that, in bearing down on harms to children and young people, the legislation will cover not only the promotion and glamorisation of self-harm and eating disorders but their prevalence and normalisation on social media and the internet, which ultimately has greater reach?

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I know that my right hon. Friend was particularly interested in that area when he was Education Secretary, and I pay tribute to his work. The grey areas that he describes are the hardest and, in some ways, the most important to tackle, particularly around self-harm and eating disorders. Again, it is important to balance this with free speech, but there is no public good in the promotion of eating disorders, and we have to ensure that this regulation picks that up.

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I note what the Minister said about watering down, but there is a suspicion abroad—not just on the Opposition Benches—that there has been a change of direction in the Government on this policy and that things such as penalties and prosecution for directors and the banning of companies that egregiously breach the new approach will be dropped in the final proposals. If that happens, it will mean that this policy is being run not from Westminster but from the west coast of America.

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The hon. Member could not be more wrong. We will deliver a sanctions regime that is effective. This is a world-leading approach, and we will take a world-leading approach to sanctions as well. The response that we published yesterday mentions director liability—to take just one example—so the suggestion that it is off the table is simply not correct.

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What discussions has the Minister had, particularly with social media companies, about them removing harmful online content as quickly as possible?

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We talk extensively to social media companies big and small—I draw my hon. Friend’s attention, although I am sure he is aware of it already, to their welcoming of our response—and we will continue to work with them. They have done good work already, but the fact that we are introducing legislation demonstrates that we do not think they have gone far enough yet.

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Five years ago, I introduced a private Member’s Bill that would have made it illegal for explicit private and sexual pictures to be shared online without consent. Subsequently, a ban on so-called revenge porn was introduced. Thousands of victims are now coming forward to the police yet only a handful of cases are going to court because victims cannot have anonymity and have to prove malicious intent. Will the Minister ensure this is criminalised and that these obstacles are not in place, so that victims can get their just deserts and criminals can be punished?

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The hon. Member is right. Whether it is sexting or revenge porn, far too much has happened since his private Member’s Bill that has not been positive. Our proposed legislation will be one way of tackling a part of that, but other important complementary pieces of draft legislation, to be introduced via the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, will close all the loopholes with regard to the kind of behaviour he mentions.

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My hon. Friend has said he will ensure that Ofcom has the right resources and powers. Can he also assure the House that it has the right skills to keep abreast of all the changes in technology and potential new harms?

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My hon. Friend is right to imply that this is partly new for Ofcom. We will not only give it the resources it needs in the immediate future but make sure that it has a genuine plan to keep pace with technology so that we are no longer in the position we are in now, to some extent, of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

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There is currently a divide between online gaming and online gambling, and this is resulting in children being groomed as the next generation of gamblers via the likes of loot boxes and skins. What are the UK Government doing to protect those children online?

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This came up earlier in DCMS oral questions, and we are looking at gambling through the review of the Gambling Act 2005, but the hon. Member is right that, in terms of gambling and gaming, the duty of care that we will introduce through our proposed legislation will range widely and will make sure that children in particular are protected online.

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Can my hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the regulatory regime that he proposes will be fair and proportionate and will expect the most out of those with the capacity, resources and market share to take substantive action to tackle online harms on their platforms?

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My hon. Friend is right that we need to make sure that the companies themselves step up to the plate, which they have not yet done enough, but the fact that we are doing this through legislation is an important indicator that we do not think it is simply down to the companies; the Government have to act.

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rose

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rose—

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We must now bring in Thangam Debbonaire.

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I wondered if it would be me or the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), Mr Speaker.

Will the Minister take the opportunity of the regrettable delay in bringing forward draft legislation to consider adopting a rebuttable principle that anything deemed illegal offline, whether the sale of guns, child pornography or whatever, should be similarly illegal online? Will he consider that principle in the legislation?

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The principle that the hon. Member describes is one that has long been at the heart of the thinking of Governments of all colours. What we are doing now is not only making sure that what is illegal offline is illegal online in theory, but through this legislation making sure that that is also the case in practice in terms of enforcement. I absolutely agree with what she is seeking to achieve.

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My hon. Friend will know that the online space is crucial for SME incubation. Does it remain the Minister’s estimation that a very small percentage of UK businesses will be affected by our new online harms proposals, and that the vast majority of small firms will not need to worry about adapting to this new legal framework?

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Yes, the figure we have talked about in the consultation is that no more than 5% of UK businesses will be affected by this legislation. We are mindful of the challenges presented by technology, but this is a profoundly pro-tech Government. We see those opportunities, and we will make sure that businesses, small and large, can seize them in a way that is safe for all our citizens.

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Will the Minister in particular underline the fact that there is a duty of care for digital users that extends not simply to monetary impropriety but to ensuring that digital forums are not seen as a mechanism for bullying under the freedom of expression banner. Will the duty of care be enshrined in law and enforced vigorously?

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Yes, is the short answer. The duty of care is a central part of this piece of legislation. It is the way in which we protect children and vulnerable people from exactly the kind of disgraceful behaviour that the hon. Member describes.