Online Harms

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:38 pm on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Kenilworth and Southam 2:38 pm, 19th November 2020

I agree with my right hon. Friend, but I will be careful, Mr Deputy Speaker, in what I say about age verification, because I am conscious that a judicial review case is in progress on that subject. However, I agree that that is something that we could and should do, and not necessarily in direct conjunction with an online harms Bill.

Digital platforms should also recognise that a safer internet is, in the end, good for business. Their business model requires us to spend more and more time online, and we will do that only if we feel safe there. The platforms should recognise that Governments must act in that space, and that people of every country with internet access quite properly expect them to. We have operated for some time on the principle that what is unacceptable offline is unacceptable online. How can it be right that actions and behaviours that cause real harm and would be controlled and restricted in every other environment, whether broadcast media, print media or out on the street, are not restricted at all online?

I accept that freedom of speech online is important, but I cannot accept that the online world is somehow sacred space where regulation has no place regardless of what goes on there. Given the centrality of social media to modern political debate, should we rely on the platforms alone to decide which comments are acceptable and which are unacceptable, especially during election campaigns? I think not, and for me the case for online regulation is clear. However, it must be the right kind of regulation—regulation that gives innovation and invention room to grow, that allows developing enterprises to offer us life-enhancing services and create good jobs, but that requires those enterprises to take proper responsibility for their products and services, and for the consequences of their use. I believe that that balance is to be found in the proposed duty of care for online platforms, as set out in the Government’s White Paper of April last year.

I declare an interest as one of the Ministers who brought forward that White Paper at the time, and I pay tribute to all those in government and beyond, including the talented civil servants at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who worked so hard to complete it. This duty of care is for all online companies that deal with user-generated content to keep those who use their platforms as safe as they reasonably can.