Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 3:37 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 214. We all know that Ofcom has a great interest in traditional media. As we can see, not least from Clauses 70 and 71, we are happy to give Ofcom a panoptic role when this is required. My amendment is designed to give Ofcom a panoptic role in new media.

We are all familiar with algorithms, particularly in such contexts as a Google search. It is just a set of rules and procedures that gets us to where we want to go from wherever we happen to be. I do not know of any great harm currently being done by any algorithms, but we ought to be aware of the power these procedures have in our lives. They govern the choice of what people see on the internet. The potential for this to interfere with news flow is obvious. If you type something into Google, it decides what you get to see. In the context of a referendum or an election, the potential for altering the result is clear. It also has an effect when you are just looking round to see what is there. Google has had trouble recently with its response to people typing in “are Jews”; it was autocompleting that with the word “evil”. This has now ceased, but it shows what influence algorithms can have in directing people to particular sources of information—in this case, with particularly nasty implications.

The function of an algorithm is to discriminate, but how are algorithms discriminating? What do we know about what they are doing in terms of fairness, when it comes to race or gender, in the context of job offers, accommodation or access? Referring again—I am sure unfairly—to Google, there was an episode last year when, if you put “three black teenagers” into the Google image search, you got mug shots of prisoners; but if you put in “three white teenagers” you did not. How do we know the effects of these things on our lives? If people start trying to correct them, what effect will these corrections have?

Most of these algorithms—or at least the big ones—are run by large, dominant, international organisations. Who controls them? We think we have some idea but there is no predictability; there does not seem to be any effective system of governance, least of all by government or institutions. They are a law unto themselves and they will continue to be so, unless something fantastic changes.

Under these circumstances, we ought to know what is going on. We ought to have the ability to take a look and make sure that it is fair and as we wish it to be, as we do in similar areas of the old media and of life. I hope my amendment will enable Ofcom to do just that. I beg to move.