Monday 1 November 2021

The draft Online Safety Bill: systemic or content-focused?

One of the more intriguing aspects of the draft Online Safety Bill is the government’s insistence that the safety duties under the draft Bill are not about individual items of content, but about having appropriate systems and processes in place; and that this is protective of freedom of expression.

Thus in written evidence to the Joint Parliamentary Committee scrutinising the draft Bill the DCMS said:

“The regulatory framework set out in the draft Bill is entirely centred on systems and processes, rather than individual pieces of content, putting these at the heart of companies' responsibilities.

The focus on robust processes and systems rather than individual pieces of content has a number of key advantages. The scale of online content and the pace at which new user-generated content is uploaded means that a focus on content would be likely to place a disproportionate burden on companies, and lead to a greater risk of over-removal as companies seek to comply with their duties. This could put freedom of expression at risk, as companies would be incentivised to remove marginal content. The focus on processes and systems protects freedom of expression, and additionally means that the Bill’s framework will remain effective as new harms emerge.

The regulator will be focused on oversight of the effectiveness of companies’ systems and processes, including their content moderation processes. The regulator will not make decisions on individual pieces of content, and will not penalise companies where their moderation processes are generally good, but inevitably not perfect.”   

The government appears to be arguing that since a service provider would not automatically be sanctioned for a single erroneous removal decision, it would tend to err on the side of leaving marginal content up. Why such an incentive would operate only in the direction of under-removal, when the same logic would apply to individual decisions in either direction, is unclear.

Be that as it may, elsewhere the draft Bill hardwires a bias towards over-removal into the illegal content safety duty: by setting the threshold at which the duty bites at ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that the content is illegal, rather than actual illegality or even likelihood of illegality.

The government’s broader claim is that centreing duties on systems and processes results in a regulatory regime that is not focused on individual pieces of content at all. This claim merits close scrutiny.

Safety duties, in terms of the steps required to fulfil them, can be of three kinds: 

  • Non-content. Duties with no direct effect on content at all, such as a duty to provide users with a reporting mechanism.
  • Content-agnostic. This is a duty that is independent of the kind of content involved, but nevertheless affects users’ content. By its nature a duty that is unrelated to (say) the illegality or harmfulness of content will tend to result in steps being taken (‘friction’ devices, for instance, or limits on reach) that would affect unobjectionable or positively beneficial content just as they affect illegal or legal but harmful content.
  • Content-related. These duties are framed specifically by reference to certain kinds of content: in the draft Bill, illegal, harmful to children and harmful to adults. Duties of this kind aim to affect those kinds of content in various ways, but carry a risk of collateral damage to other content.

In principle a content-related duty could encompass harm caused either by the informational content itself, or by the manner in which a message is conveyed. Messages with no informational content at all can cause harm: repeated silent telephone calls can instil fear or, at least, constitute a nuisance; flashing lights can provoke an epileptic seizure.  

The government’s emphasis on systems and processes to some extent echoes calls for a ‘systemic’ duty of care. To quote the Carnegie UK Trust’s evidence to the Joint Scrutiny Committee, arguing for a more systemic approach:

“To achieve the benefits of a systems and processes driven approach the Government should revert to an overarching general duty of care where risk assessment focuses on the hazards caused by the operation of the platform rather than on types of content as a proxy for harm.” 

A systemic duty would certainly include the first two categories of duty: non-content and content-agnostic.  It seems inevitable that a systemic duty would also encompass content-related duties. While steps taken pursuant to a duty may range more broadly than a binary yes/no content removal decision, that does not detract from the inevitable need to decide what (if any) steps to take according to the kind of content involved.

Indeed it is notable how rapidly discussion of a systemic duty of care tends to move on to categories of harmful content, such as hate speech and harassment. Carnegie’s evidence, while criticising the draft Bill’s duties for focusing too much on categories of content, simultaneously censures it for not spelling out for the ‘content harmful to adults’ duty how “huge volumes of misogyny, racism, antisemitism etc – that are not criminal but are oppressive and harmful – will be addressed”.

Even a wholly systemic duty of care has, at some level and at some point – unless everything done pursuant to the duty is to apply indiscriminately to all kinds of content - to become focused on which kinds of user content are and are not considered to be harmful by reason of their informational content, and to what degree.

To take one example, Carnegie discusses repeat delivery of self-harm content due to personalisation systems. If repeat delivery per se constitutes the risky activity, then inhibition of that activity should be applied in the same way to all kinds of content. If repeat delivery is to be inhibited only, or differently, for particular kinds of content, then the duty additionally becomes focused on categories of content. There is no escape from this dichotomy.

It is possible to conceive of a systemic safety duty expressed in such general terms that it would sweep up anything in the system that might be considered capable of causing harm (albeit - unless limited to risk of physical injury - it would still inevitably struggle, as does the draft Bill, with the subjective nature of harms said to be caused by informational content). A systemic duty would relate to systems and processes that for whatever reason are to be treated as intrinsically risky.

The question that then arises is what activities are to be regarded as inherently risky. It is one thing to argue that, for instance, some algorithmic systems may create risks of various kinds. It is quite another to suggest that that is true of any kind of U2U platform, even a simple discussion forum. If the underlying assumption of a systemic duty of care is that providing a facility in which individuals can speak to the world is an inherently risky activity, that (it might be thought) upends the presumption in favour of speech embodied in the fundamental right of freedom of expression.

The draft Bill – content-related or not?

To what extent are the draft Bill’s duties content-related, and to what extent systemic?

Most of the draft Bill’s duties are explicitly content-related. They mean to cover online user content that is illegal or harmful to adults or children. To the extent that, for instance, the effect of algorithms on the likelihood of encountering content has to be considered, that is in relation to those kinds of content.

For content-related duties the draft Bill draws no obvious distinction between informational and non-informational causes of harm. So risk of physical injury as a result of reading anti-vax content is treated indistinguishably from risk of an epileptic seizure as a result of seeing flashing images.

The most likely candidates in the draft Bill for content-agnostic or non-content duties are Sections 9(2) and 10(2)(a). For illegal content S.9(2) requires the service provider to “take proportionate steps to mitigate and effectively manage the risks of harm to individuals”, identified in the service provider’s most recent S.7(8) illegal content risk assessment. S.10(2) contains a similar duty in relation to harm to children in different age groups, based on the most recent S.7(9) children’s risk assessment.

Although the S.7 risk assessments are about illegal content and content harmful to children, neither of the 9(2) and 10(2)(a) safety duties is expressly limited to harm arising from those kinds of content.

Possibly, those duties are intended to relate back to Sections 7(8)(e) and 7(9)(e) respectively. Those require risk assessments of the “different ways in which the service is used, and the impact that has on the level of risk of harm that might be suffered” by individuals or children respectively – again without expressly referring to the kinds of content that constitute the subject-matter of Sections 7(8) and 7(9).  However, to deduce a pair of wholly content-agnostic duties in Sections 9(2) and 10(2)(a) would seem to require those S.7 risk assessment factors to be considered independently of their respective contexts.

Whatever may be the scope of S.9(2) and 10(2)(a), the vast majority of the draft Bill’s safety duties are drafted expressly by reference to in-scope illegal or legal but harmful content. Thus, for example, the government notes at para [34] of its evidence:

“User-to-user services will be required to operate their services using proportionate systems and processes to minimise the presence, duration and spread of illegal content and to remove it swiftly once they are aware of it.” (emphasis added)

As would be expected, those required systems and processes are framed by reference to a particular type of user content. The same is true for duties that apply to legal content defined as harmful to adults or children.

The Impact Assessment accompanying the draft Bill states:

“…it is expected that undertaking additional content moderation (through hiring additional content moderators or using automated moderation) will represent the largest compliance cost faced by in-scope businesses.” (Impact Assessment [166])

That compliance cost is estimated at £1.7 billion over 10 years. That does not suggest a regime that is not focused on content.

Individual user content

The contrast drawn by the government is between systems and processes on the one hand, and “individual” pieces of content on the other.

The draft Bill defines harm as physical or psychological harm. What could result in such harm? The answer, online, can only be individual user content: that which, whether alone or in combination, singly or repeated, we say and see online. Various factors may influence, to differing extents, what results in which user content being seen by whom: user choices such as joining discussion forums and channels, choosing topics, following each other, rating each other’s posts and so on, or platform-operated recommendation and promotion feeds. But none of that detracts from the fact that it is what is posted – items of user content – that results in any impact.

The decisions that service providers would have to make – whether automated, manual or a combination of both – when attempting to implement content-related safety duties, inevitably concern individual items of user content. The fact that those decisions may be taken at scale, or are the result of implementing systems and processes, does not change that.

For every item of user content putatively subject to a filtering, take-down or other kind of decision, the question for a service provider seeking to discharge its safety duties is always what (if anything) should be done with this item of content in this context? That is true regardless of whether those decisions are taken for one item of content, a thousand, or a million; and regardless of whether, when considering a service provider’s regulatory compliance, Ofcom is focused on evaluating the adequacy of its systems and processes rather than with punishing service providers for individual content decision failures.

A platform duty of care has been likened to an obligation to prevent risk of injury from a protruding nail in a floorboard. The analogy is flawed, but even taking that analogy at face value the draft Bill casts service providers in the role of hammer, not nail. The dangerous nail is users’ speech. Service providers are the tool chosen to hammer it into place. Ofcom directs the use of the tool. Whether an individual strike of the hammer may or may not attract regulatory sanction is a matter of little consequence to the nail.

Even if Ofcom would not be involved in making individual content decisions, it is difficult to see how it could avoid at some point evaluating individual items of content. Thus the provisions for use of technology notices require the “prevalence” of CSEA and/or terrorism content to be assessed before serving a notice. That inevitably requires Ofcom to assess whether material present on the service does or does not fall within those defined categories of illegality.

More broadly, it is difficult to see how Ofcom could evaluate for compliance purposes the proportionality and effectiveness of filtering, monitoring, takedown and other systems and processes without considering whether the user content affected does or does not qualify as illegal or harmful content. That would again require a concrete assessment of at least some actual items of user content.

It is not immediately obvious why the government has set so much store by the claimed systemic nature of the safety duties. Perhaps it thinks that by seeking to distance Ofcom from individual content decisions it can avoid accusations of state censorship. If so, that ignores the fact that service providers, via their safety duties, are proxies for the regulator. The effect of the legislation on individual items of user content is no less concrete because service providers are required to make decisions under the supervision of Ofcom, rather than if Ofcom were wielding the blue pencil, the muffler or the content warning generator itself. 

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