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 that we need a regulator and will come on to exactly that point. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, for reasons that I will outline in just a moment.

I recognise that what I am talking about is not the answer to every question in this area, but it would be a big step towards a safer online world if designed with sufficient ambition and implemented with sufficient determination. The duty of care should ask nothing unreasonable of the digital platforms. It would be unreasonable, for example, to suggest that every example of harmful content reaching a vulnerable user would automatically be a breach of the duty of care. Platforms should be obliged to put in place systems to protect their users that are as effective as they can be, not that achieve the impossible.

However, meeting that duty of care must mean doing more than is being done now. It should mean proactively scanning the horizon for those emerging harms that the platforms are best placed to see and designing mitigation for them, not waiting for terrible cases and news headlines to prompt action retrospectively. The duty of care should mean changing algorithms that prioritise the harmful and the hateful because they keep our attention longer and cause us to see more adverts. When a search engine asked about suicide shows a how-to guide on taking one’s own life long before it shows the number for the Samaritans, that is a design choice. The duty of care needs to require a different design choice to be made. When it comes to factual inquiries, the duty of care should expect the prioritisation of authoritative sources over scurrilous ones.

It is reasonable to expect these things of the online platforms. Doing what is reasonable to keep us safe must surely be the least we expect of those who create the world in which we now spend so much of our time. We should legislate to say so, and we should legislate to make sure that it happens. That means regulation, and as the hon. Gentleman suggests, it means a regulator—one that has the independence, the resources and the personnel to set and investigate our expectations of the online platforms. For the avoidance of doubt, our expectations should be higher than the platforms’ own terms and conditions. However, if the regulator we create is to be taken seriously by these huge multinational companies, it must also have the power to enforce our expectations. That means that it must have teeth and a range of sanctions, including individual director liability and site blocking in extreme cases.

We need an enforceable duty of care for online platforms to begin making the internet a safer place. Here is the good news for the Minister, who I know understands this agenda well. So often, such debates are intended to persuade the Government to change direction, to follow a different policy path. I am not asking the Government to do that, but rather to continue following the policy path they are already on—I just want them to move faster along that path. I am not pretending that it is an easy path. There will be complex and difficult judgments to be made and significant controversy in what will be groundbreaking and challenging legislation, but we have shied away from this challenge for far too long.

The reason for urgency is not only that, while we delay, lives continue to be ruined by online harms, sufficient though that is. It is also because we have a real opportunity and the obligation of global leadership here. The world has looked with interest at the prospectus we have set out on online harms regulation, and it now needs to see us follow through with action so that we can leverage our country’s well-deserved reputation for respecting innovation and the rule of law to set a global standard in a balanced and effective regulatory approach. We can only do that when the Government bring forward the online harms Bill for Parliament to consider and, yes, perhaps even to improve. We owe it to every preyed-upon child, every frightened parent and everyone abused, intimidated or deliberately misled online to act, and to act now.