Online Harms White Paper

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 8th April 2019.

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Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:31 pm, 8th April 2019

I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving advance notice of his statement. I also thank the members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee for their meticulous work, much of which has made it into today’s document.

Let me outline what I think is at stake. We are at an inflection point in technological and human advance. Data can transform this planet almost beyond our current comprehension. The ideas of John von Neumann, I.J. Good and Ray Kurzweil tell us how accelerating intelligence and artificial intelligence can lead to a technological singularity. On health, for example, it will allow humans to take control of their own cellular biology; cancer patients worldwide will be able to share their data for the common good.

At the heart of this revolution, however, is a public policy question about the legitimate use of our personal data. That legitimate use has been imperilled because a couple of early big data pioneers distorted the market by making crazy amounts of money from targeted advertising and then protecting their market dominance.

These past months, this House has felt more divided than at perhaps any time in our recent history, yet one person and one cause has united elected representatives of all parties throughout the House—Mark Zuckerberg and the urgent need to bring social media giants into line.

It feels like we are living in a digital dystopia: a nightmare where a young girl commits suicide after being exposed to images of self-harm on Instagram; a business model where a massacre can be livestreamed on Facebook and the video shared thousands of times on YouTube; and a horror where a teenager is groomed in an online gaming community and then murdered in cold blood.

These companies are making billions extracting and monetising our personal data, and what do we get in return? Harms, hate speech and fake news filling our timelines and the minds of young and vulnerable people. It is no wonder that New Zealand’s privacy commissioner called the executives of Facebook “morally bankrupt pathological liars” after the company refused to acknowledge any need to change its policies following the Christchurch mosque attacks. I cannot disagree with him.

We found out today that Google avoided £1.5 billion of corporation tax last year. That could have paid for 60,000 nurses for our NHS. This from a company with a net worth of £645 billion. The abuses and harms perpetrated online represent one of the toughest social policy challenges of modern times. It is our duty, as elected representatives and policy makers, to rise to that challenge, and it is to the Secretary of State’s credit that he has clearly taken that duty seriously today.

Labour has already committed to many of the announcements in this White Paper. An independent regulator, a legal duty of care and a tough sanctions regime will support the Government in introducing these measures, but I have no doubt that the industry will fight back. The tech giants are certainly gearing up for a fight, hiring an army of lobbyists who I expect will be in touch with each of us very soon. I hope we can all make a commitment now that these measures will be the minimum standard of regulation and that we will not resile from any of the report’s recommendations.

There is much in this White Paper to be commended, but we also have concerns. Our biggest fear is that the announcements will take months, if not years, to come to fruition. When terrorists are recruiting, children are being exploited and disinformation wars are being waged online, we do not have time to spare. We need action now. Will the Secretary of State commit to bringing forward the legislation on the new regulator in the next parliamentary Session?

There is nothing in this report about protecting our democracy from dark third-party political advertising and those who wish to sow disinformation and discord. Even Mark Zuckerberg has said that Governments need to introduce regulation to protect electoral integrity. Does the Secretary of State admit that this White Paper fails to do that?

The duty of care codes and the codes of conduct sound like very important steps, but the devil will be in the detail. For example disinformation, such as anti-vaccination propaganda, is being spread unchecked in closed groups on Facebook, contributing to a burgeoning public health crisis. Will the Secretary of State explain how this White Paper might tackle that?

Underlying all the harms, hate and fake news on social media platforms is one central, fundamental problem: the distorted digital market dominated by a small number of data monopolies. These companies surveil our every like and share, extract our data and sell it on to advertisers 10 times over. They are hoovering up companies big and small, suppressing competition and innovation. They are now so dominant that they think themselves too big to fail—untouchable by mere national Governments.

We agree with the Secretary of State that this is only the start, and we respect what is in this White Paper and will work to help deliver it, but the truth is that, until we deal with the fundamental issue of data monopolists dominating the market, we will never really see the end of this digital dystopia.