Michelle Donelan unveils new approach to the Online Safety Bill

20th September 2022

The new Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, has unveiled her broad approach to the controversial Online Safety Bill (OSB) in her first interview today (with BBC Radio) since taking office. It was clearly an important opportunity for her to sketch out her position on the main issues about the Bill, because the inquest into the tragic death of teenager Holly Russell opens on 20 September. It will focus on the welter of material about self-harm, suicide and depression Holly viewed online before she committed suicide in 2017. Her father has since led a high profile campaign for greater online safety. SMB Consultant and former Ofcom Legal Director, Trevor Barnes, explains what important new points lawyers and others watching the OSB can learn from Donelan’s comments.

The new Culture Secretary is clearly a pragmatic minister and one in a hurry regarding the OSB. Michelle Donelan stressed several times that she will be led by the evidence in her decision-making, and that she wishes to bring the Bill back to the Commons and into law as soon as possible.

She confirmed that the protection of children sections of the OSB will, not surprisingly, be a main area of focus. She underlined that one of her main aims is to “prevent incidents like this [the suicide of Holly] happening again.” Interestingly she did not take the opportunity – irresistible to some politicians – to lambast the big social media companies for putting profits before the online safety of children, and failing to take sufficient action to protect them.

The impression she gave instead was of a minister keen to take account of the tech companies’ expertise and point of view but also firmly to “hold them to account”. She underlined that, under the Bill, Ofcom will have the power to fine them millions of pounds. And that if they fail to provide the regulator with all the information it requests, senior executives could themselves be held personally accountable and prosecuted. It was a shot across the bows of all social media companies to be regulated under the OSB. They must be well advised about, and ready for, the all important risk assessments to be issued by Ofcom soon after the OSB becomes law.

Donelan all but said that the ‘legal but harmful’ category of content included in the Bill will be dropped (as first revealed here in a previous blog). She could easily have confirmed that it would remain, but refused. Instead, the Culture Secretary stressed that this category was designed to protect adults not children, and that the protection of children and illegal content sections of the Bill would remain. She refused to go into detail, stressing that she would confirm this in the House of Commons.

She underlined that she was a champion of free speech, pointing to her attacks on “cancel culture” while universities minister. It would be important in the Bill, she said, to ensure protection for freedom of expression (a major political reason, although she did mention it, for excising the vague legal but harmful category from the Bill).

Senior people at Ofcom, the social media companies and the Culture Department will have listened to this interview with Michelle Donelan with a purr of relief and satisfaction. After her widely derided predecessor, Nadine Dorries, the new Culture Secretary came across (whatever one’s political views) as more thoughtful, practical and media savvy. Only time will tell how her personality and approach will mark the final form of the OSB, which could be one of the most significant pieces of legislation to be passed by the new government of Liz Truss.