Enshrine data access for independent researchers or risk public safety, online harms campaigners warn
Researchers and online harms experts – including the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the 5Rights Foundation, NSPCC and the Molly Rose Foundation – have warned the Government that its Online Safety Bill is in “serious peril” of passing without powers for “meaningful transparency”.
All remaining outstanding amendments tabled by peers are being debated on a single final day, Thursday June 22.
So far, the Government has not adopted any amendments to the Bill other than its own.
Imran Ahmed, Chief Executive of CCDH, who was the first witness to give evidence to the Bill’s pre-legislative Joint Committee in September 2021, said:
“Social media companies have worked their socks off to ensure that the Online Safety Bill is neutered, both by issuing endless cynical, overblown warnings and by taking advantage of the chaos in the Government in the summer of 2022.
“The Government has had years to get this right but as it stands, the Bill is only half-baked. Without guaranteed transparency, there will never be meaningful accountability for the harms commercial social media platforms cause to individuals, our society, and the integrity of our democracy.
“The Government has spent two years slogging to turn the Online Safety Bill into law, so they should be the ones most concerned that without Lord Bethell’s amendment, we might well end up with less transparent, less accountable and less safe social media platforms.”
The campaigners argue that recent anti-transparency measures by tech companies such as Twitter – which under Elon Musk now charges independent researchers £33,000 per month for access to data that was previously free – have made the need to enshrine meaningful transparency in law even more urgent.
An open letter published today, signed by 12 civil society organisations, urged the Government to adopt the Data Access Amendments, tabled by Lord Bethell and backed by a cross-party group of peers.
The amendments would enable Ofcom to give researchers access to internal platform data – provided that they meet tough standards on independence and privacy.
It would also force platforms to follow a “code of practice” on data access for independent researchers that will help prevent them from distorting or withholding data.
The powers have not yet been added to the Bill – despite being recommended by the regulator, Ofcom, as well as a host of civil society organisations, peers and academics.
The letter reads: “Under the stewardship of Elon Musk, Twitter now charges researchers £33,000 ($42,000) a month to access data that was previously free – all but shutting down free access to its API. It has also ordered academics and public interest researchers to delete data obtained previously.
“Recent research revealed that TikTok withholds data about online harms from its transparency centre, suppressing information about the proliferation of content relating to eating disorders, suicide and self-harm with billions of user views.
“We ask the Government to support the Data Access amendments, supporting the researchers, academics and experts who work in real-time to empower and inform the British public about the online harms that affect their lives.”