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 Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:45 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this very interesting debate. Clearly there is a principle upon which everyone is agreed, and that is that this is a serious and growing issue. It is certainly an issue that the Government take very seriously.

As my noble friend Lord Lucas has set out, the basis of the amendment aims to understand the impact of algorithms on users of digital services. As we have already heard, algorithms play an important role in modern life, from making recommendations for books you might like to read, to more important matters such as credit ratings and detecting fraud. Indeed, there is a real debate here on the extent to which the public are willing to compromise on what is termed privacy for a better service. Transparency itself is incredibly important in terms of knowing how information about oneself is used, for what and with whom it is being shared, and having some control over that.

While the Government are sympathetic to the spirit of this particular amendment, we believe that it would not have the intended effect. The Government recognise that how these algorithms work is increasingly important and have been actively looking at how we can ensure that there is transparency and accountability where algorithms have an impact on people’s lives. As part of this work we have commissioned some very intelligent minds at the Royal Society and the British Academy to review the UK’s data governance landscape—this is a really important step forward. It is clear from listening to the debate this afternoon that perhaps even a further debate in this House on this subject would be helpful. It is something that we must not be afraid of, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said—it is our future. The review is examining the increasing use of new data technologies and data-driven decision-making and will provide recommendations later this year.

The huge breadth of use for algorithms means that a one-size-fits-all approach would not, we believe, be appropriate. The development of algorithms is a key source of innovation in the digital economy in areas such as cybersecurity—as referenced by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester when he talked about anti-terrorism—artificial intelligence, medicine and autonomous vehicles. Tech companies have legitimate concerns and legitimate reasons to protect their intellectual property, including how their algorithms work. This was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, in relation to commercial confidentiality. This is a difficult and quite complex area, but some protections already exist and more will exist. For example, under the general data protection regulation, which will come into effect from 2018 and provide directly applicable rights, people will have a right to object to how decisions are made by algorithms that are based on their personal data and significantly affect them individually.

As already expressed this afternoon, another area where algorithms may play an important role concerns the proliferation of so-called fake news. I am aware of concerns on this issue; algorithms can play a role in deciding which search results and news stories are presented on websites and social media platforms. Fake news is an issue that the Government are looking at specifically—and it is complex. There are a number of angles from which this can be looked at. The role played by platforms such as Facebook and Google is undoubtedly one such angle—we want to work with them on this whole issue—and so, too, are the actions and motivations of those content producers developing the fake content and the way in which consumers respond to fake content. This is why the Government are in listening mode, but we believe it is too early to conclude that legislation is necessarily the answer.

Lastly, this amendment is widely drawn, and so— I am sorry—not perfect. It would be an enormous undertaking for Ofcom, or indeed, any regulatory body. Ofcom’s current remit in respect of public electronic communications services relates to protecting end-users in relation to the transmission of communications rather than the content of those communications, which was an issue touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. With that explanation I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.