Online Harms

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:43 pm on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:43 pm, 19th November 2020

I thank the Backbench Business Committee, Jeremy Wright, Fiona Bruce and my hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson for stepping in where the Government have failed by bringing forward this debate and for the excellent opening contributions. Indeed, we have heard excellent remarks from all parts of the House in this debate, and I am sorry that I do not have time to do justice to them all—I have just noted how much time I have.

As a chartered engineer, I spent 20 years building out the networks that have become the internet. I am proud of that work and of what it has become. As we have heard, we are increasingly living our lives online, and the ongoing pandemic has accelerated that. For those who are not digitally excluded, social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter are all now woven into the fabric of our lives and, together with the vast array of online apps for everything from video conferencing to healthy eating, they are a critical enabler of an active life for citizen, consumer and economic contributor. None the less, as Members have shown so acutely, the internet can be a dark, challenging and inhospitable place. Content is curated by tech platforms that allow the spread of disinformation, sexual exploitation, fake news, extremism, hatred and other harmful content. September saw the highest number of public reports of suspected child sexual abuse material ever received in a single month by the Internet Watch Foundation. On TikTok, the #vaccinesaredangerous has had almost 800,000 views, with almost no misinformation warnings. Incredibly, we have yet to have a debate in Government time on online harms. Hon. and right hon. Members have expressed many concerns in this place in written and oral questions over the years, but Government have done nothing. Regulation has not kept pace with technology, crime or consumers, leaving growing numbers of people increasingly exposed to significant harms, but it did not have to be this way.

In 2010, the then Labour Government saw the growth of new communications technologies and undertook a comprehensive forward-looking review. The result was the Communications Act 2003 and a new regulator, Ofcom, with the power to ensure that these issues were resolved in the public interest. That regulatory framework had a 10-year lifespan—I know because I was head of technology at Ofcom at the time. In 2012, the Conservative-led Government saw the growth of our online lives—social media and big data—and did nothing. The 2012 review of online harms may be the most important review that we never had. It was not until April 2019 that they finally began a consultation since which legislation has been promised repeatedly and yet it comes not, leaving big tech in control of our online lives.

I consider myself a tech evangelist. I believe that tech is an engine of progress like no other. I believe that it can improve the lives of my constituents and enable a more equal, more productive and more sustainable skills-based economy through a fourth industrial revolution, but people need to be protected and empowered to take control of their lives online. The Government need to be on the side of the people and not tech lobbyists. This Government have failed us to a degree that is historically negligent, as this debate shows.

Members have highlighted how Government are failing in their duty to safeguard children from child abuse. Other Members have focused on the economic harms and the existing tech giants business model, which means that Google and Facebook have control of the online high street, even as Amazon unfairly competes the high street in our real-world towns out of existence. Ninety seven per cent of UK consumers consult reviews when buying products online, yet investigations by Which? have repeatedly exposed fake and misleading reviews. How will the Government address these online harms in economic terms and enable real competition? We have also heard about online advertising, which is the driver of the business model. It is unregulated, leaving television companies at a disadvantage and driving more and more extreme content in front of viewers. My understanding is that the Government plan to ban all advertising of unhealthy foods on the internet. Is that the case, and why will the Government not act more broadly to address the failings of the advertising model?

As a constructive Opposition, we have proposals as well as criticisms. Self-regulation has failed—this debate has made that clear—but, robust, reasonable, rational, forward-looking and principles-based regulation can succeed. It is shocking that in all this time, the Government have not established what those principles should be. Our ability to build back from covid depends on a successful vaccine, and we have had fantastic news about that recently, but, as we have heard, misinformation on vaccines as well as on 5G, the holocaust and so on is freely available. That is why Labour is calling for emergency legislation on anti-vax disinformation. Will the Government commit to that?

Labour has made it clear that we need a digital bill of rights and a legal duty of care to give more powers and protection. We need a statutory regulator for online platforms to crack down on the harm, the hate and the fake. We also need a public debate on what our online future should look like, and that is why we launched the consultation “Our Digital Future” to build consensus on the underlying principles. We are now analysing the over 600 responses that we have received, and we will publish our report soon. We are committed to eradicating the digital divide—indeed, the many new digital divides—as a result of which marginalised peoples have become increasingly excluded from the online world.

Many bodies, including the NSPCC, Big Brother Watch, the Carnegie UK Trust, Which? and the Institute of Alcohol Studies have contacted me and asked me to raise their concerns. I cannot do them all justice or spend time talking about algorithms, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and all the other emerging potential harms. Government must set out a clear plan to address these online harms and give people back control of their online lives, if our lives are to flourish online without fear or favour.