Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:45 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate. We, particularly those of us of a certain age, often get to a point where we are scared of the technology that we are expected to use. We are in the hands of our children, who shout things like, “It’s intuitive! Just do it!”, but we do not have the faintest idea what we are trying to do. However, we should not be scared of technologies. History should tell us that the reason why Shakespeare’s Globe is outside the city walls of London is that people like us in those days felt that they were dangerous plays that should not be seen by too many people. Video nasties and indeed concerns about some of the issues that are in the Bill are examples of the same thing. We have to be careful that this is not just another “penny dreadful” story but a serious issue.

I was not that concerned about this matter in my own consciousness until I came across it personally and in relation to something that has already been mentioned in the debate. I work with a small charity that relies entirely on a website presence in order to try to help people who suffer from the condition that it serves. For the first seven or eight years of the charity’s life, we were ranked number one on a search engine—let us call it Google—so when you searched for the condition, we came up top. In the last six months, we have gone from top to, I think, 44th in the rankings for this condition, which means that no one now uses our services, rings up or communicates with us. We are now on page four of the search results and that turns out to have been achieved by a change in the algorithm, which prunes out the people who apply. The ISP put in a particular search term that managed to knock down the efficacy of the inquiries that were coming to us at our charity. So the charity, which was doing good work and reaching 2,000 or 3,000 people a year, is now reaching no one, and we cannot change that because the algorithm is behind a commercial confidential situation. So I pick up the points that are being made all round the Chamber about the need for us to get more clued up about this without being scared of it, and I support the amendment for that reason.

The second point that has been picked up, which slightly goes against the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, is that, where an algorithm is helping to achieve a relatively straightforward systems approach, it is probably not as much of an issue as where it is substituting its judgment for yours. It is not knowing what that judgment is that is the problem, and that is where the points that have been made need to be picked up. That is something that we would all benefit from. Whether or not this is the right amendment, there is an issue here that will need to be pursued, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.