My Lords, as the chairman of your Lordships’ Communications Committee when this report was published, it is a great pleasure to introduce today’s debate. I take the opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, who has now been appointed as the committee’s new chairman. The committee published Growing Up With the Internet in March and the Government responded in October, making this debate very timely—all the more so as the Government are now consulting on their Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, with a deadline for responses next month, and timely, too, because the related Data Protection Bill is currently in your Lordships’ House.
I am exceedingly grateful to my fellow committee members for their support and contributions to this unanimous and, I am glad to say, well-received report. My thanks, too, go to all noble Lords participating this afternoon. I particularly look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. I give special thanks to our clerk, Theo Pembroke, and our committee assistant, Rita Logan, as well as to our policy analyst, Helena Peacock, who, sadly for this House, is leaving parliamentary service to take up a senior position at the BBC. I wish her every success. I give sincere thanks, too, to our specialist advisers, Professors Marina Jirotka and Sonia Livingstone, and I commend Professor Livingstone’s LSE blogs on all these issues.
Our report sets out how the internet today pervades the lives of children. By the age of 13, three-quarters of children already have a social media profile. The internet provides endless opportunities for connecting and sharing with friends, alongside access to the search engines and apps that bring endless entertainment, wonderfully presented education and, indeed, developmental support. For example, half of girls aged 16 to 21 turn to the internet for information on sex and relationships. But for all its positive attributes, the phenomenon that is the internet can also bring hazards, harassment and harm.
Rereading our report, I listed some 10 areas of risk and danger that confront a child who goes online. You can face horrible cyberbullying, the subject of an important Royal Foundation Taskforce led by the Duke of Cambridge. Bullying and name-calling online does not stop when you go home from school, or even when you go to bed. You can be exposed to confusing and frightening images of pornography and violence, which can stay in the mind for years. These may pop up on social media, or they may be pressed on you by others—or you may access them deliberately, but regret doing so. One-fifth of 12 to 15 year-olds say that they have encountered something online that they have found “worrying or nasty”.
You can be pressurised on social media by your peers, developing worries about your body image and about how many people like you, and you can become obsessed with selfies. You can face privacy issues, not least linked to sexting, when highly personal images can appear on social media. Every aspect of your life, every move you make, is likely, unbeknown to you, to be recorded and held by the social media company for its own purposes.
You can be misled by fake news and by vloggers selling products surreptitiously, by unsolicited advertising appearing on your Facebook pages, like it or not. You can be captivated by websites that distort, not support, websites featuring self-harm, suicide and anorexia. You can find your critical faculties blunted and your attention span diminished. You can be ensnared by addictive online games, captured by sophisticated but sinister algorithms that hold the player online. It is not so uncommon for a child to stay up all night playing games and be unable to go to school in the morning. You are also at risk from predators online using false identities to groom and exploit children.
It is clear that those with serious concerns about the internet are fully justified, even while we all agree that it provides incredible opportunities to explore, experiment, learn, be creative and get important support from websites and friends. Our report contains 38 recommendations and conclusions, to which the Government have responded helpfully, alongside their publication of the excellent draft Internet Safety Strategy, which I know that the committee greatly welcomes. Let me summarise the committee’s views and the Government’s response.
First, we recognise that parents and carers are in the front line, and they need the tools to guide their children through this minefield. It is no good parents saying that their children know more than they do; that taking away the mobile phone from a compulsive user causes too much trouble; or that their children can find ways around any filters controlling online content. No—for better or worse, good parenting today requires an understanding of what can be done to help one’s child to build resilience and avoid pitfalls. Agreeing and setting ground rules and maintaining lines of communication between parent and child about their internet use is a serious matter.
Fortunately, there is help at hand, not least online. We heard from Vicki Shotbolt about Parent Zone’s guidance; from the NSPCC with its Net Aware website and guide for parents; from Barnardo’s, and from others doing wonderful work. So advice and support is available to assist parents. The Government, in their internet safety strategy, pledge to work with civil organisations and the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, or UKCCIS, which will be remodelled to align with the new strategy.
Secondly, the committee underlined the central role played by schools. We saw an urgent need to enhance the digital literacy of children to equip them to navigate safely through the online world. We called digital literacy the “fourth pillar” of a child’s education, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. This is quite different from the important education in computer literacy required in the modern world, and we emphasised the need for teacher training to cover the skills which teaching digital literacy demands. We advocated making this a core ingredient in personal, social and health education, or PSHE, which, we said, should be a statutory subject, inspected by Ofsted, and should cover compulsive use, privacy of data, obsession with body image and the rest, not just the e-safety agenda of risks.
The Government’s draft strategy fully accepts this crucial role for education and notes the new compulsory relationships education at the primary school level and the relationships and sex education at the secondary school level, as well as through PSHE, if that is made compulsory, too.
Thirdly, after parents and schools, there is the role of industry—online platforms such as Google, Twitter and YouTube, internet service providers and mobile network operators, such as Virgin, BT and Sky, as well as those that make the tablets and smartphones such as Apple and Microsoft. These are huge and immensely powerful organisations with responsibilities that should match their pervasive power.
We had little time for the excuses that we heard from those who produce and deliver the internet’s content: that the internet is too big to police with its operations all over the world, although most of its traffic passes through the hands of a very small number of huge tech companies, which can indeed be held to account, and regulation has to start in one country before it can spread to others; that it amounts to censorship if people are constrained in what they can access on their screens, although few believe that children should be treated in the same way as adults, any more than they should be treated in the same way if they want to buy cigarettes or drive a car; that technology is insufficiently advanced to filter contents and protect the innocent, although personalised technology already exists and, among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, a leading expert in this field, encouraged the committee to recognise that technology can do almost everything we can imagine, and more.
The committee was glad to see coming through the pipeline measures that should improve the behaviour of tech companies, such as the Digital Economy Act 2017, which, after April 2018, should see that harmful pornographic content is blocked, and the EU’s general data protection regulation, which, from next May, should introduce such measures as the “right to be forgotten”. But now the Government are proposing in their internet safety strategy a much fuller code of practice, greater transparency in companies’ reporting and a social media levy. This is going absolutely in the direction advocated by the Communications Committee. We would include in the code of practice the obligation to make terms and conditions understandable to children, rather than expecting them to have to read extensive small print before ticking an “I accept” box. Our committee also wanted to see proper dispute resolution, such as an ombudsman service, when the customer or user of an internet service is dissatisfied—for example, when the internet service provider fails to take down personal data when requested to do so.
That leaves our recommendations aimed directly at the Government. We recognise that government, as well as supporting parents and schools, has the key role in influencing industry’s behaviour. We found that government responsibility here was fragmented, divided between the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the DCMS. We wanted leadership from the Prime Minister and the appointment of a children’s digital champion within the Cabinet Office to take a holistic overview of all aspects of this issue. Karen Bradley, the DCMS Secretary of State, told us last month that the Prime Minister is indeed giving these issues her personal attention, and there is recognition that a more co-ordinated approach across government departments must be part of the new strategy. The Minister for Digital will perform this role.
The Prime Minister’s interest is more than welcome and I hope that she will convene the industry summit that we recommended. Having a Minister for Digital is helpful but it is not quite the same as having a children’s digital champion as a permanent appointment at the centre of government, helping to establish and oversee those minimum standards of design and practice, working with the different government departments, commissioning research and ensuring that policies are progressed.
As things stand, government’s approach is positive but depends on this mighty industry putting its own house in order, implementing minimum standards of child-friendly design and making the filtering of content as easy as possible—for example, with the default for filters to be “on” so that parents are not required to turn them on themselves, which is how Sky operates, with far better results than its competitors in this regard—with proper protection of privacy and speedy action in taking down unwanted personal content, and so on. We added that the best interests of the child should be built into the design process, making compulsive behaviour more difficult rather than actively promoting it. And there is more.
I finish by congratulating the Government on the steps they are now taking and on the increased priority they are giving to keeping children safe online. However, without going as far as Simon Jenkins, who in the Guardian described the Government’s stance as “beyond pathetic”, I sense a pervasive uneasiness that the internet providers and the huge tech companies—the Googles, Facebooks and the rest—may never do as much as they should without more strenuous government intervention, perhaps along the lines so plausibly argued by the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron, Lady Harding of Winscombe and Lady Lane-Fox, and others in the debate on the Data Protection Bill in this House only yesterday. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that, if encouragement of voluntary action, with the industry adopting and following a rigorous code of practice, does not produce results, the Government are ready to act to make sure that our children really are safe as they grow up with the internet. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and I am most grateful to him for his kind welcome to the new chair of the committee. I very much look forward to working with fellow committee members.
When I joined the Communications Committee, this inquiry was already under way under the chairmanship of the noble Lord. He was an outstanding chairman, and in this inquiry he led us through complex issues across a huge subject area. I know that the whole House will be very grateful to him for his service as chairman of the committee. It typified his dedication to public service and to this House.
Our chairman kept us and our witnesses focused and, as a result, we were able to produce a report that has added to the debate on this issue while clearly influencing public policy, with many of its recommendations reflected in the Government’s internet safety strategy and in wider government thinking.
While referring to the way that the report has influenced government thinking on internet safety, I emphasise that it was much wider in its scope and the committee was right to take a broad view of children’s well-being in the digital age. It is about equipping young people with skills so that they can successfully navigate their way through life as they grow up. To do that, we must hear young people and treat them with respect, recognising that we need to do a lot more than protect them from harm if they are to flourish in the digital world.
As we took evidence, we saw the challenges that schools and parents in particular face. We also saw vast amounts of good work and best practice, with impressive programmes in schools supported by a number of charities and by some in the industry. We saw some of this work for ourselves when we visited the Richard Atkins Primary School in south London. We met bright and engaged children and caring and passionate teachers, and we witnessed a session of Internet Legends, a programme from Google, which partnered with the Parent Zone charity. This high-quality and very engaging event taught skills that primarily empowered children to stay safe and to be confident online.
However, that programme is one of many—not sufficiently extensive—all of which have similar content but are delivered inconsistently, so children are not getting these key messages time and again in consistent form. School-based campaigns can go only so far. Indeed, a critical part of the Internet Legends programme was the provision of materials that children were encouraged to take home to share with parents and carers and with friends and siblings. However, this of course depends on parents having the knowledge, confidence and will to engage.
So the Government and industry need to work together to promote public information campaigns and provide tools for parents and carers. Best practice needs to be agreed, and the brilliant creativity in this sector needs to be deployed to take these complex issues and create engaging, simple messages that are communicated consistently through public campaigns by schools and youth organisations.
We highlighted the difference between technical knowledge and digital literacy and emphasised the importance of critical understanding—the skills that will enable children to understand and question the digital environment that they inhabit and to thrive and grow in this world. It is these skills that will enable children to think about how their personal information might be used by social media platforms, to recognise advertising when they see it, to question information provided to them as news, and to understand when and why they are being targeted with content. With these skills children will understand that just because something is online, it is not necessarily true; they will use the internet to seek the truth for themselves. These skills will enable them to seek out the information they want and to understand it. They will learn to challenge others with respect and to preserve their own reputation online.
In their Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, the Government highlighted this too. The Green Paper spoke of developing digital literacy and teaching digital citizenship. I welcome this, and am certain that the Secretary of State and Ministers want to work effectively with stakeholders. However, I would welcome some indication from my noble friend the Minister that the Government do not see this as ultimately the responsibility of the industry, which most certainly needs to step up, schools, parents or civil society, but that they—the Government—are responsible for ensuring that everyone is working together and effectively.
As the noble Lord, Lord Best, illustrated in his opening speech, this report was wide-ranging—I have focused on just one aspect. As we took evidence, and as I prepared these remarks, I reflected on the huge opportunities that the internet brings to young people, of the good it can do and the challenges it brings for parents. Very many parents, while not digital natives, are comfortable using the internet and have adopted it widely in their own lives. They have the confidence to raise children to flourish in the digital world. But some parents lack that confidence. The very term “digital native” applied to their children somehow makes it worse, implying that their children live in a different world that they will never understand. As we produced recommendations that call for support and tools to be provided to parents, I worry that this effort will lack focus; that these tools will be taken up with enthusiasm by the already well-informed and confident parents and those who are less confident and, frankly, in some cases neglecting their children, will not get the support they need. If this happens, the consequences will be horrible. Our society will be more divided, as some children thrive and take up these opportunities and others are held back and put in danger. Rather than driving opportunity for all, it will drive social injustice.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister will recognise the important role of parenting, the role of government in championing and supporting good parenting, and the need for targeted and active engagement with parents and extra support for those children who most need it.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Best, in offering my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, on his appointment as chairman of the Select Committee. Having just been appointed to it myself, I look forward to serving under him. I also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and will listen with interest to what he has to say.
Congratulations must go also to the noble Lord, Lord Best, on this comprehensive report, and to the Government. I only wish that I had been on the Communications Committee when the report was drawn up, because the members must have learned so much about this fascinating area. I think that we will be returning to this subject almost constantly. The internet and digital media are changing so fast that you cannot simply do a report and assume that it is now dealt with. I hope that the Communications Committee will respond favourably to the Secretary of State’s invitation made at the conclusion of her letter, which reads:
“I hope the Committee will feel able to respond to the Internet Safety Strategy consultation”.
Consultation is a good thing. I am all in favour of it and I endorse the feeling that we must try to get the industry to recognise the benefit to it of behaving properly and having good regulation. I am a great believer in the concept of enlightened self-interest and getting 95% from people voluntarily. When I was in business, I did not try to force the other 5%. When it is voluntary, people will give their heart and soul to the job, but when you enforce the further 5%, they will say, “Oh! Five o’clock already?”, and off they go. Therefore, if we can get the agreement of the industry, so much the better, and it is right that the Government should pursue that. However, we must simultaneously prepare a plan B and examine what leverage we have to deal with an internet giant that decides not to comply.
I regret that, during the consultation period, the Government have not opted for the original default position on child pornography, which was that we would not allow prohibited material—in other words, bringing offline in line with online. The British Board of Film Classification said as much in its evidence to the committee. The Government deserve congratulations on dealing with this problem now. The tragedy is that a whole generation of young people have grown up with a warped view of sex and relationships, and we may pay a very heavy social consequence for that neglect. I am delighted that this is happening now, but I hope that the Government will not postpone revising the code and the method by which it will be implemented, and perhaps consider the British Board of Film Classification recommendation that they go back to prohibited material and do not allow something online that would be prohibited offline. After all, nowadays, things are delivered online, whether it is music or video.
I belong to a generation that regards the term “disruptive” as having slightly pejorative overtones—no teacher wanted a disruptive pupil in his or her class. But disruptive is now used with approbation in the digital world, and, in a way, I can see why. They are shaking things up, bringing us back to fundamentals and asking us to look anew at why we do things, how quickly we can do them and how directly. The problem is that if you are analogue in your formation—and I was for most of my life, seven-eighths of it—it is very difficult to think digitally. Here I take slight issue with my new chairman, because I think that children are in a different world. I have never been more conscious of the wisdom of the poet Kahlil Gibran and his remarks in “On Children” in the book “The Prophet”:
“You may house their bodies but not their souls.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams”.
I am afraid that there is an element of truth in that. I cannot think digitally but my grandchildren automatically think digitally, and there is a huge gulf.
Nobody wants to curb the curiosity of children or the great potential of the internet to satisfy that. However, where that satisfaction comes in a form that is not intermediated, it is asking a lot of a child to spot the difference between a blog from an idiot and well-researched news editorialised by the BBC: they look the same on the screen. Education is the answer, but it teaches skills and cannot impart wisdom to an eight year-old. Regrettably, that tends to come only later in life. Therefore, the role of parents will be especially important.
That too brings problems, because it is true that children are better at the internet than their parents almost by definition. In fact, you can imagine the comic scene of a parent asking their child to set the parental lock for them. Children adopt this technology almost automatically; it is intuitive. Therefore, we will have to do something to help, such as establishing a kitemark that endorses the terms and conditions so that parents do not have to read all the pages. I am almost scared to read through all the pages in case I lose the connection, so I tick “I agree”—and for all I know I could be mortgaging my house to Apple or whoever it might be. Nobody ever reads the full terms and conditions, but clearly somebody should.
The Government are clearly behind almost everything that the committee has come up with. I am more relaxed than the noble Lord, Lord Best, that they have gone for a Minister rather than a digital champion. Although “digital champion” is glitzy, I always worry when Governments resort to unorthodox things such as tsars for drugs and other issues, as though somehow the problem is solved by the terminology. It is not.
Frankly, a belief system will be important to give children a reference point against which to set what they are learning on the internet; otherwise, they are literally adrift in a new world. It is a very exciting new world. I am awe-inspired by the possibilities of the internet, but terrified of its harmful consequences. The committee has done a good job in balancing both, and I hope the Government will follow through with great urgency. The answer to the idea of having a digital champion—as well as a digital Minister, which we already have—might be to strengthen the department and appoint a junior Minister who will act as the children’s champion.
My Lords, when you put your name down for certain debates and start doing your research, you realise that you might just be stepping out of your depth. If my head disappears below the water, I am that man today.
What happened to make me put my name down? It was the idea of growing up with the internet. I initially thought about how one accesses the internet. I am one of a minority in this country who is dependent on assistive technology to interact successfully with digital media. It helps with the written word generally. On a screen, I use voice-to-text technology to read things back clearly. I also use text-to-voice technology. It is a fact that, although there is more assurance in the educational sector, many sites on the internet do not allow this to be used. That means that many people who use this type of technology, such as dyslexics and people with visual impairment, find it incredibly difficult to get into a subject. With some people it is an absolute—someone who is totally blind—but with most people, if they do not have that assistance, they find it more difficult and it becomes slower to use the internet. Things then become more difficult and you cannot fully take on board what is happening. Sometimes, you find yourself absolutely stopped if you have to fill in a document that does not interact with the technology.
The Government should not get too smug about this. I have spent a great deal of the House’s time trying to get it to make its online English test for apprenticeships compatible with this technology. That was a real reason why dyslexics have not been able to take the test to apply for apprenticeships. Everyone has made this mistake. Everyone has assumed that they are like us, so they have not made it compatible. I was wondering where in this great discussion we could include a way of achieving this level of interaction with fairly large parts of our society. They are minorities but still form a large part of society. A growing number of people would benefit from this. How will we integrate the technology and push it on?
Surely the Equality Act means that that should happen. But we all know about the Equality Act—just because something should happen does not mean that it will unless someone goes out and makes a fuss and says, “Why aren’t you doing it?”. Also, large corporations tend to back off and say, “Well, nobody’s complained”. That is a great one for dyslexics—none of the dyslexics has written a letter to complain. That is one of my favourite replies, and it was first given to me by a civil servant. I would like to hear from the Government how we can interact to make sure that this goes forward. How will they integrate this into the policy? I appreciate that the Government are in the eternal position in Westminster of playing catch-up. They should not worry because we should all take some of the blame. It is a fairly normal condition. We are seldom ahead of the curve, in my experience. But how we will make sure that this follows on is an interesting subject.
I return to the report and what has been said in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, got in very early with the suggestion that parents are the vital thing. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, said that as well. How can we enable parents to support their children? The school is not the primary educator. The primary educator is the parent or the one with parental control—the one who endorses everything, gives assurances on what you are doing and helps you get through. If we cannot expect this new technology to be as easy for those who are in my generation or older—and even those who are considerably younger, let us face it—we must have something else.
My go-to thing is to make an awareness package available to parents. What should we be looking out for? There are various schemes. The Minister could read out the names of lots of schemes and things that do quite well here and there. However, the minute you read out a list of activities, you have already failed, because it is so easy to miss the right scheme that might help you in certain circumstances. If you can bring together something that says, “This is the central point where you should be starting to worry”, you stand a chance. That way you know what you should refer to and where you should go on from. Also, if we are not going to take every parent back into the classroom and hammer this into them, it will be a long and repetitive process of saying, “Here are some central guidelines and how we going to follow them”. Some of this work is going on but it is bitty and patchy. It does not touch people. As has already been said, a parent who is committed will get involved. They will cover this. They will be aware and will at least be talking to that child and saying, “This is what you should expect to happen and this is what should not happen”. But this will take persistence, which will need endorsement from the entire political class to get it going.
It took a long time to bring smoking rates down to the current level, and there was always resistance to that within certain sectors and interested groups. I would like to know from the Government: first, what they are doing to bring together this central information point; and secondly, what engagement they have across the political parties and the political spectrum to make sure that it carries on? If it does not carry on, and I believe that there is the will across the political classes to make sure that this happens, we will have problems. Awareness for parents and those who have not been brought up in this environment is the best we can hope for, realistically, until Anno Domini takes over. What are the Government doing along these lines? Without such action, you will leave holes and patches, because schools simply cannot do it all themselves.
It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and I take on board his point about accessibility. Although children as a whole are a huge user group, in fact, all users are individual. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Best and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, to his new role. Both made inspiring speeches. I will concentrate on the role of government and a little on the role of companies.
So often, when we talk about children in the digital environment, we concentrate on two extremes—the harms and risks on the one hand and on the other the absolute panic that the 21st century child’s life is entirely dependent on mastering digital technologies so that they can participate in this new digital first world. I want to congratulate the committee—of which I was one, but we were many—on the report. It was resolute in carving a path between these two extremes, neither of which is insignificant but which together still fall far short of describing the whole of what we need to understand and act on when thinking about children in the digital environment. In order to provide for childhood, we need to adopt a clear, overarching set of principles to act as a blueprint for all policy interventions. We need a strong, independent voice to advocate on behalf of children. We are already at plan B, which is that it is time to put the codes and requirements of ICT companies on a statutory footing.
The Government’s safety strategy has three stated principles right at the front: what is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online; all users should be empowered to manage online risks and stay safe; and technology companies have a responsibility to their users. Those three principles completely align with the recommendations in the committee report, yet they seem at odds with the strategy itself and the government response to our report. This mismatch between stated policy and outcome is a persistent problem in this area, not helped by the Digital Economy Act and Data Protection Bill coming ahead of the safety strategy, and the safety strategy coming ahead of a digital charter about which we still know very little.
The committee’s report was clear that the fragmented response to the challenge of creating a digital environment fit for children is part of the problem. We were very proud to get three Ministers to come to the same session, but disappointed to find that we were still missing a couple to complete the answers to all our questions. Similarly, we found that the responsibility for developing digital literacy is widely dispersed. It is a duty at Ofcom and at the ICO; it is an element of statutory sex and relationships education in the Children and Social Work Act 2017; it forms a code of conduct in the Digital Economy Act; it is delivered via the computer curriculum; and, very often—as the Secretary of State did when announcing the safety strategy—it is outsourced to commercial companies and third-sector organisations such as Facebook, Google, the Diana Award, Childnet International and many more that do good, but fragmented, work.
While I do not doubt the sentiments of government, ultimately we lack an overarching vision when it comes to children in the digital world. What is needed is a single strategy, not divided into risks, education and skills but holistically concerned with supporting childhood in the digital world. However, in looking for bodies that champion the rights and needs of children, we were again disappointed: UKCCIS was found to be insufficiently effective; the Children's Commissioner felt that she did not have the same powers to act in the digital environment as she did in the analogue; Ofcom formally resisted a widening of its remit further into the digital environment; and the ICO said that children’s issues were embedded in lots of different pieces of guidance.
That resulted in recommendation 4: a digital champion. We made clear that that person should report at the highest level, be given the power to convene and be trusted with a cross-governmental policy. It seemed to us that without the clarity of a single recognised voice advocating for children, the fragmentation would continue and grow. As we have heard, the Secretary of State said in her response that children have an advocate, in the form of the Minister for Digital. However, he has a cacophony of duties, many of which involve lobbying and being lobbied by tech and ICT companies. I do not doubt for a second that he shares our concerns, but the inherent conflict of interest in his brief prevents him being an effective advocate for children.
We also called for UKCCIS to have a clearer set of goals and meaningful powers. I have already expressed my dismay to the Secretary of State—dismay shared by many charities and campaigners—that the Internet Safety Strategy proposes broadening the council’s remit from children to address the harms of all users. UKCCIS is the only place in the entire ecosystem of government that has children at the centre of its concerns. How, amid hate crime, trolling, radicalisation, scamming, misogyny, revenge porn, fake news and phishing, are children to be heard? Children are not adults. The challenges that children and young people face in the digital environment, and the rights and privileges they are entitled to, are specific and related to their age. At the risk of repeating myself, many people in the community are devastated, not only by the decision but by what they feel it means about the Government’s view on the status of children in the digital environment. Perhaps it is useful to remind noble Lords that of the world’s nearly 3 billion users, one-third are under 18. This is not a marginal issue.
UKCCIS should be exclusively focused on our children. It should be independent of government, with an independently appointed chair who has the necessary expertise and standing. It must be properly resourced with staff and funds and able to carry out research. It should be expected to make policy recommendations that Ministers should reject only with transparent reason. It should have statutory powers, including the power to require disclosure of information and to compel people to appear before it. It should have an obligation to publish an annual report on progress against predetermined, long-term objectives, impacts and challenges. There should be no commercial companies on the executive, but standing meetings should be in place to consult with tech, business and government on an agreed agenda. Children need advocates in this space.
As for plan B, behind many of our recommendations was the admission that a regulatory response is the only remaining plausible response to an industry that continues to willingly duck its responsibilities to children. Yesterday evening, in Committee on the Data Protection Bill, the Minister confirmed, in response to a question from the Opposition Front Bench, that the code proposed in the internet safety strategy is voluntary and that,
“there will be no statutory basis for the digital charter”.—[
That is not good enough. Self-regulation has failed and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding of Winscombe, said, she is,
“convinced of the good that the digital world can do, but as with all technology, we need to mould it to meet our needs, not vice versa, and it is high time we set out the basic safety requirements our children need”.—[
The noble Baroness and I, with broad support from all sides of the House, put forward a series of amendments to the Data Protection Bill that would require a service seeking the consent of a child to meet minimum standards of age-appropriate design.
Noble Lords interested in the detail can find it in yesterday’s Hansard, in column 1579, but what is important to us today is that the amendments go some way—in fact, quite a long way—to fulfilling recommendations 7, 8, 16 to 18 and 23 to 29 of the committee’s report. If passed into law, they would provide meaningful support to young people to enjoy online the norms they currently enjoy offline. In the balance of power between tech and children, tech has held all the cards for too long. It is the Government’s duty to act on behalf of children with more than warm words. I hope that the Government will find a way to adopt these amendments when they reappear on Report.
I will finish with the observation that when the committee started its work, there was considerable concern among committee members that they might fail to understand some of the digital parts of a digital childhood. However, it emerged that they all were experts, because whatever their background and interest, they had a profound understanding of childhood—and it was childhood, not digital, that was at stake. Childhood requires a graduated journey from dependence to autonomy; a need for education and emotional support; a desire to grow up a bit too fast, then retreat back to something a bit safer, only to venture out again moments later; the right to make mistakes and not be unduly punished for them; and so on. We were unanimous in our desire to see our values and children’s childhood, and their expectations of childhood, retrofitted into the digital world.
However, there appears to be an assumption from government that children should adapt to and be resilient in the face of the commercial structures of online services; that tech companies can be trusted to voluntarily put the best interests of the child first; and that, as long as we recognise the harms, the kids are all right. That is a series of category errors. The digital world is a business like any other, and the price of doing business with children is adapting services to recognise the age of the child user. Self-regulation has been accompanied by a cavalier lack of transparency and, year on year, the consequences of online risk are more apparent in an increasingly complex environment. Without our help, the kids are not all right.
My Lords, it is a great joy to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I support the amendments she is pioneering through the House. They are extremely important. It is also a great honour, and a great education, to serve on the Select Committee on Communications. As other members of it have said, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the admirable and skilful way he led us through this. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, as our new chair.
So much in this report is critical to the sort of world we want to live in, the well-being of our nation, our public life and particularly our children. In his opening speech the noble Lord, Lord Best, outlined disturbingly well the challenges and dangers. Although I welcome the initial responses we have heard from the Government, much more still needs to be done to join all this up and make sure the needs of the child are put at the centre. Among the many important recommendations we offer, I draw attention to just two, because they are important in themselves and illustrate the larger, central point of our report—that government must take up the challenge to ensure that all those who work in the digital world work together to support the needs of children in an integrated and overarching response.
Let me tell your Lordships a couple of stories. When my eldest son was about 11 or 12 years old he came home from school one day and told us that he was the only boy in his class who did not have a mobile phone. We said to him, “Don’t be so stupid, of course you’re not the only boy in your class who doesn’t have a mobile phone”. We then chatted with a few parents at the school gate over the next couple of days and discovered that actually he was the only boy in his class who did not have a mobile phone. So what did we do? We went out and bought him a mobile phone. It was the right thing to do. We did not want him to feel left out or disadvantaged in a changing world. But my eldest son is now 27 years old. This was a long time ago. That mobile phone we bought him could only really make calls or texts.
Now, there is the advent of smartphones and tablets. When I was a boy, if I wanted to find out stuff, I had to get on my bike and cycle to the library. Now, I carry the whole library and so much more besides in my pocket, like the rest of your Lordships, and refer to it from time to time if the debate loses interest. Just about every child in our country and across the world has access to all the advantages of this technology and all the terrible snares. If you do not have one you are seriously disadvantaged, which is another issue in itself.
Quite simply, the longer this inquiry went on, the clearer it became to me that it is simply no good for Facebook and others to shrug their shoulders and say that they are just a platform upon which others stand and that they cannot take responsibility for content and its consequences. If they wished—or if we made them—they could be a ticket inspector of that platform, offering proper control and management of content in all the various ways our report outlines, such as the right to be forgotten, age verification, the removal of upsetting content, time out and so on. The technology is there, but they will not use it unless pressed.
Let me tell your Lordships another story. When I was about 15 years old I had a Saturday job in a wood-yard. The men who worked there often left their sleazy and by today’s standards I suppose fairly mild magazines lying around. When I was alone in the canteen, and if I thought nobody could see me, I looked at those magazines. I am not particularly proud to tell your Lordships that and I publicly repent of it in the House of Lords—I am a bishop after all. Admitting this will not look very good on my Facebook page, but I was a normal 15 year-old boy and I expect most normal 15 year-old boys would have done the same thing. But now it should be of huge moral concern to our nation that those images and so much more and so much worse besides are available in the pocket of every 15 year-old boy. There is extremely disturbing evidence from organisations such as the National Council for Women telling us how the persistent and pervasive viewing of pornography can lead to acceptance of all sorts of violence and unhealthy notions about sex and relationships, and men having extremely warped and degrading attitudes to women, the likes of which—if I can say this in this Chamber, this week—affect all walks of life. I could go on.
The digital age brings astonishing freedom and opportunity. It gives access to each other and to information that previous ages could never have envisaged. But to inhabit this age well our report calls for sustained leadership from government at the very highest levels, an ambitious programme of digital literacy and, most important of all, a commitment to child-centred design, protecting them from danger and harm while enabling them not just to be safe but to thrive online.
Furthermore, I also learned during this inquiry about the potentially damaging impact not just of some of the content, but of the very fact of viewing the tablet itself, and how overuse, particularly with very small children, can affect cognitive development. Because the technology is so new it is hard to know, on all levels, what the longer-term impact might be, but this is an area where more research is urgently needed. It further illustrates that, although we are indeed growing up in the digital age, we lack maturity in the way we are governing, regulating and responding to this development. It is too fragmented.
The digital age can be an age of cultural, intellectual and even moral prosperity, but enlightened legislation based on sound and child-centred research is needed to lift it from the mire and misery it is also creating. This will require great determination from the Government, but perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that self-regulation does not work. Commercial interest always outflanks care of the child. This must change, and the Government must take a lead. It is often said of government that its first responsibility is to protect citizens. We should now ask our Government to protect our children.
My Lords, I am exceptionally grateful for this opportunity to speak so early in the debate and to express my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his committee on such an excellent report, all of whose conclusions I warmly endorse. I also by and large agree with many of the sentiments earlier expressed.
I wish to make five short points, but I hope that, before doing so, I may be permitted to express my gratitude for two things. First, before and after my introduction to this House, which is now some four years ago, I have had occasion to appear before committees and attend meetings with Members of the House. These have been extraordinarily important to the development of proper relations, and the proper working of our constitution, between the two separate branches of the state, the judiciary and the legislature in both its Houses. On each occasion, I have been treated with such courtesy. I have never before had the opportunity to express my appreciation. During the past month, I have felt very much like a new entrant or a novice, and I wish to express my deep appreciation not only to Members of the House but particularly to all the staff for their infinite patience in answering questions that could be asked only by former lawyer.
I turn to the five points that I wish briefly to make. First, from my experience sitting as a judge, there can be little doubt that without control and filtering of content available to children on the internet, great damage is caused. There can now be no question of that. Of course, parental engagement is crucial, but I do not think it possible to delineate the responsibilities of parents without at the same time delineating those of the internet service providers—the ISPs—the providers of content and the providers of intermediary platforms.
Secondly, my experience has also shown that one of the most important protections that can be given not only to children but to everyone is to have inappropriate content taken down as quickly as possible. It mitigates the damage caused. However, particularly because of jurisdictional difficulties, the experience of the courts has not always been a happy one in this respect. If the courts have difficulties, I cannot but imagine what difficulties private individuals have. Robust action is needed in this respect.
Against those two considerations—this is my third point—it is necessary to bear in mind, as the report so powerfully advocates, the importance of digital literacy to the modern age. The internet is crucial to doing that. One thing that gives me the greatest occasion to be proud of being British is, when travelling overseas, to see the extent of the appreciation of our innovation, which can only be encouraged from the youngest possible age. Earlier this year, we had a hackathon, trying to develop skills for the use of programmes to enable people to go to court, and the participation of the young was tremendous. That can only be encouraged by balancing the freedom to innovate and to think. That, therefore, has also to be brought into account.
Fourthly, the formulation of the respective rights and responsibilities is not an easy task, nor, as the previous speakers in this debate have shown, is it necessarily easy to decide on the appropriate formulation, be it a code of conduct or something more backed by statutory force. I do not think I trespass on convention by observing that, where there is a legal duty, it helps concentrate the mind.
But there is one final point I wish to make. We must remember that, although we live in this island, we live in a world where the problems debated in the report are common to virtually every state. In other areas to do with the use of digital technology and digital innovation, there is an emerging consensus among lawyers, legal academics and judges who are interested in this that we must seek worldwide solutions to identifying the issues, thinking of answers and trying to adopt common principles. I hope this is a task that can be pursued. We cannot ignore the jurisdictional difficulties. If there is a worldwide consensus on what needs to be done—certainly, there is consensus in the report on what needs to be done—I am sure that will in the end provide the strongest protection to our children but also encourage them to innovate, to think and to help the future prosperity of our nation.
My Lords, it is my great privilege to follow my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. We are very honoured to hear him today because many will recall that, as a result of our legislation, when my noble friend became Lord Chief Justice he was not allowed to speak here, so his words today are all the more valuable as we finally hear him in person.
My noble and learned friend had the reputation for being an outward-looking, vigorous and energetic Lord Chief Justice, and he has taken an interest in the ambassadorial role, finding links with other judiciaries and establishing links that bring great benefit to our country and other countries, and which will be so valuable in the rather difficult times that we face. My noble and learned friend is not really going into retirement. Of course, he is coming here, but he has also taken on the Commission on Justice in Wales, a role which I think he began last month. We wish him well in that. We warmly welcome my noble and learned friend here today and, going by everyone’s attention to his words of wisdom today, I think I can say that we look forward to hearing many more such words from him in the future.
Like others, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his committee on drawing together a detailed and important report on this exceedingly complex and difficult field. I do not envy the Minister having to pick her way through what is achievable, what is the Government’s responsibility and what is in what you might call the laptop the gods.
Like everyone else, I have become an addict of the internet—I can barely sit through a debate without seeing whether somebody has responded to my email; is that not a terrible admission?—although, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I am an internet novice when it comes to social media. I tried to put up a Facebook page and indeed have several through half-witted attempts. So I bought Facebook for Dummies and found that even that was too advanced, but I have now learned that there is Facebook & Twitter for Seniors for Dummies, so I am going to try that one next time and see whether I can do better.
The widening of human knowledge, which we all get from the internet is infinite. Ten years ago, doing historical research, I had physically to go to universities all over the world for the materials I wanted; it can now be at my fingertips in seconds. At organisations such as the National Archives at Kew and the British Library, so much is now digitised, including works that go back hundreds of years. I cannot tell noble Lords with what speed I now manage to complete pieces of research. However, helping anyone, not least children, gain a critical understanding and get to grips going through this minefield of what is likely to be true and what is good to look at is extremely difficult.
I am interested in how we develop children’s health knowledge and how they get to know when and how to use healthcare services. Knowledge about healthcare is peculiarly poor in this country. Partly, I think that this is a counterintuitive adverse reaction to the National Health Service—noble Lords may recall that I have worked in the National Health Service for most of my life—which has the adverse effect of imposing barriers to people using it to find information. Even if you look at the critical information that comes from NHS websites it is rather simplified and crude compared with some of the information that is available, for example, in the United States from good health organisations and the National Library of Medicine. It is unusually the case that we are not a well-informed community.
Of course, children and young people want to use the information to access material which they might not want to ask a doctor or school nurse about. In the US, where people have to make a decision about where they go and who they are going to pay to see, it is often in their best interests to find out. I understand that, for example, Global Kids Online, the London School of Economics research project examining children’s use of the internet in 17 countries found that in South Africa, up to two in five teenagers look up health information online at least twice-weekly. It is easy to imagine that teenagers value that they can find this just-in-time information completely confidentially. The potential for educating children about their health is wonderful, but I thought I would look at the internet: what do you do when you come across a very simple problem that a child might want to look up? For example, what do you do when you have a wart on your hands? If you go to the first page of Google, what do you face? Well, an ad comes right up in front of you—it does not say that it is an ad—for “Natural solutions for warts”. It is a very attractive site and it says, “Boost your immune system. Use pineapple. Use garlic. Try baking powder. Take vitamins. Aspirin. Lastly, tea tree oil”. For me, that made pretty grim reading when there is ample evidence about what will really treat a wart effectively and stop you spreading the virus. Pineapple and garlic sound a lot more pleasant.
How do we ensure that kids can really assess this information? Getting that education and critical understanding is crucial, not only for health, of course, but in all the information they are seeing online. I pay tribute to the work in the UK of the NHS Digital Child Health Transformation Programme. Its recent report Healthy Children sets out the case for restructuring information so that people can access to better information that they share with their parents—when they do—about how to collaborate with professionals. All that is exceedingly important. I wholeheartedly agree with the Select Committee that digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education, not only because it will help them with the internet but because it will help their critical understanding of so many other problems they have to face. The sort of algorithms you use in critical appraisal are the same sort of algorithms you use for critical understanding of the rest of your world. On that basis, it is the fourth pillar of education.
I was concerned by the report many noble Lords will have seen in the Economist last week on the digital economy. Young people in the UK now spend on average four hours a day on social media. This is more than in most other countries in Europe, although less than in the United States. I think that only in Hong Kong do children spend longer looking at social media. The qualities of critical appraisal that we give them are crucial, but so many people have gone into the details of what needs to be done that I do want to expand on that except to say that it seems unlikely that some voluntary system of control over the big internet companies will allow us to do that well. We must give kids more skills but also allow the Government to make clear to the companies that they must join us.
We have to understand that it has taken us 400 years to get the print media to establish codes of practice and so on, so it is not really surprising that we have to do this in a terrible hurry and have not got it straight in the first 20 or 30 years. To sum up, the Government’s responsibility is to ensure that teachers are adequately trained and resourced, but we know that by the time children go to school, it is a bit too late to start. Children start to develop critical faculties when they are two or three. Certainly, by the age of four they are halfway there. It is at that age that parents need to start ensuring that their kids have an understanding. The industry itself should be thinking about these issues. We have this miracle of the internet and, some would say, the miracle of social media; now we need to ensure that children born in this generation are more savvy than their rather credulous and perhaps gullible parents.
My Lords, I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s special representative on internet safety. While this is not exactly the role envisioned by the committee of a children’s digital champion, noble Lords may be assured that child safety online is a personal life mission for me and I commit to doing my very best on behalf of children.
I commend the Communications Committee on the publication of its excellent report, Growing Up with the Internet, and for bringing forward its important and prescient findings for consideration and debate today in your Lordships’ House. As has been pointed out, the Government’s internet safety strategy is vital in addressing the danger young people face online. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, said in commenting on the report, government action must be further-reaching and sustainable in the long term. I would add only that government action must also be faster, as these matters are urgent for young people in the UK and all over the world. The pace of technological change is exponential and its effects unprecedented, transforming childhood beyond recognition. The harms that young people face online continue to evolve and multiply. As it stands today, we are playing catch-up. The responses of both government and industry are, as the report expresses, reactive. We operate under a crisis management construct. This means that we acknowledge wrongs and demand change when children have already been hurt, when the damage has already been done. This is not good enough. To remedy this, we must shift tactics to prevent harm, rather than simply continuing to respond to it.
I welcome the report’s recommendation that we place digital literacy alongside reading, writing and arithmetic as the fourth pillar of our children’s education in the national curriculum. If enacted, this measure would be an empowering and positive force in our children’s educational toolkit. Just as the UK was the first G20 country to make coding in schools part of the national curriculum in 2014, we must continue to be at the forefront of ensuring that our children are equipped to compete in the future with appropriate digital skills. We must also ensure that they are equipped with strong mental health and well-being strategies appropriate for leading a healthy and happy digital life. Placing the onus on children and educators alone to address this gap in digital literacy is overwhelming to both. It is unfair for us to expect young people to be strong and resilient enough to fight major mental health battles brought about by the likes of cyberbullying, sextortion, revenge porn, fake news, hate speech and extreme pornography at a time in their lives when their brains are still in the formative stages.
Digital resilience is an important weapon in our battle against online harms and crimes; however, if we are to succeed in protecting our children, we must address these issue at source. The report acknowledges that,
“self-regulation by industry is failing”, and that companies continue to put commercial interests first. Rightly, it calls upon industry to implement,
“minimum standards of child-friendly design, privacy, data collection, and a report and response mechanisms for complaints”, and that the standards are,
“built early into the process of design so that the needs of children are considered preventatively rather than reactively”.
Two years ago, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety—UKCCIS—working group supported by representatives from the major social media and interactive services providers created a guide that encourages business and developers to think about safety by design to make their platforms safer for under-18s. It advocated an approach to product development that I have long supported and first put forward to this House in my maiden speech in October 2014 in the debate to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Unfortunately, the one-size-fits-all approach to internet products and services continues and is failing to protect the rights of children online. The major, ubiquitous online services, with the exception of YouTube Kids, are not age-appropriate. Two years on from that ground-breaking UKCCIS report, many crucial breaches of online safety protocol still persist.
The time for talking about safety by design and making public pronouncements about it as a philosophy has passed. Real progress means protecting all children online full stop, and it is vital that the protection of the privacy of young people becomes a major social and policy pillar of our Government and of Governments all over the world. This is a crucial metric by which progress should be measured.
The great reach of technology and social media companies does not observe national boundaries, and so it follows that it will take a multistakeholder approach that transcends boundaries to empower everyone to act for better online safety. That is why the WePROTECT Global Alliance, founded and funded by the UK, is such a powerful movement. A unified global initiative to eradicate online child sexual abuse and exploitation worldwide, it consists of 75 member countries, tech companies, leading charities and civil society organisations. We need to leverage this model across all internet harms and crimes, especially those that adversely impact children.
Finally, today we find ourselves at a crucial moment in how we act on behalf of children and their data privacy. We live in an age of digital footprints, and children are no exception. Their medical history, school records, friendships, interests and moods can all be collected, analysed and even monetised. It is important to recognise these issues within the broader, ongoing work surrounding child online safety. Vitally, all consumers should be given the tools and capability to understand the implications and consequences of data processing. As the most vulnerable members of our society, the rights of children must be considered throughout the development of online products and services, and we must act to ensure that their rights and privacy are protected and respected. That is why it is of the utmost importance that the Government commit to enshrining the increased rights proposed by the upcoming EU general data protection regulation as a minimum standard in our own Data Protection Bill, which is currently being robustly debated in this House.
Those who have the true power to transform young people’s digital experiences for the better are those leading the major tech products and social media platforms we all use every day. They have the access, expertise and financial resources to combat these problems that their products have unleashed. Although these consequences are unintended, the moral imperative is clear. We need a co-ordinated response to ensure digital resilience in young people, to evolve government policy in response to an ever-changing digital landscape and to ensure proactive, robust and effective industry action. We need a coalition of the willing to work together to protect children in the digital world and to ensure their rights are protected as they grow up as digital citizens.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and in this case we need a new era of co-operation and shared responsibility that puts the needs of children first. We need to scale our response not incrementally but exponentially because change is the only constant and the future will deliver it only in orders of greater magnitude and complexity. As challenging as this wave of digital technological change has been, it is only the beginning.
My Lords, it is an honour to take part in this debate. I too congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, on his maiden speech and welcome him to the House.
This debate covers several of the issues I have championed over the years. It is a privilege to be a member of the Communications Select Committee, to have worked with other noble Lords and our outstanding chair, the noble Lord, Lord Best, and to produce this important report at this crucial time in the continued growth of the internet. It is a joy to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, as we are kindred spirits and I totally agree with her on many of the issues she brought here. It is also wonderful that the Government have robustly supported many of the recommendations and aims of the report. It is a good start, but there is more to be done. The report has a sobering message that affects everyone’s future.
The internet opens an amazing digital world that can bring joy, knowledge, wonderment and excitement. It can take us on a journey of discovery way beyond the dreams of previous generations. This digital revolution is fast-moving, and we are beginning to encounter adults who have never known any other way of interacting with the world, but the internet is not without its dangers and parents, carers, teachers, public service providers, online creators, internet service providers, regulators and, most of all, government need to play their part to ensure that our children grow up with the internet healthy, safe and secure, with a sense of responsibility.
Many parents have allowed their children to use the internet without first teaching them its dangers and hazards, using the excuse that their kids know more than them, but would you allow your child to drive a car without taking supervised lessons? I think not. Parents and carers need to make it their business to find out about the digital world together with their children. This must be encouraged. Until now, teachers have not been fully trained to deliver digital knowledge in the classroom, so it has been left up to enthusiastic individuals to do the best they can. Therefore not all children learn the skills needed and are at a disadvantage when it comes to employment and IT skills that can help solve the social and diversity imbalances we have. We need to ensure that teachers and all those in front-line public services receive specific training modules.
In the past, internet service providers, social media companies and game developers have not always acted with morality when it comes to collecting children’s personal data or involving them in the addictive online world and have instead focused on squeezing financial rewards from children by getting them hooked to spend endless hours online. These organisations have to start being accountable. How often have you seen a family in a restaurant with the kids glued to their handsets while the adults talk among themselves? This too has to change.
It breaks my heart when I think of how children have been exposed to inappropriate adult material at the click of a mouse and endure endless bullying, violence, body shaming and even radicalisation. The results have been detrimental to their well-being, causing anxiety and depression as well as social and sexual problems. No one in their right mind can argue that early exposure to pornography is not extremely harmful to children and affects their ability to form loving and stable sexual relationships as adults. Children need to have age-relevant PSHE in schools to armour-plate them to deal with emotions and social issues, good or bad. Only now, after numerous reports and warnings about the effects of pornography, especially on young boys and subsequently on young girls, are ISPs taking notice, and age verification, filters and blocking will be implemented. That is something for which I and other noble Lords have long campaigned.
However, so much more needs to be done to achieve joined-up policies and tighten up any loopholes that could be harmful to our children’s well-being. There is no doubt that the internet has transformed lives, but as we all know, it has a dark and dangerous side which hides evils. For all these reasons, the report has called for a children’s digital champion to be at the centre of government to take a holistic approach across all government departments. So it is good to see we at least now have a Minister for Digital with a mission to do just that: to act, as I would call it, as a superhero with children’s well-being at the forefront of his mind as he carries out his duties. I also welcome the Government’s Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, which focuses on the effects of the internet. I look forward to working with the Government to make further progress in this rapidly changing area and ensure that no stone is left unturned, as it will take more than self-regulation. If we get this right, the rest of the world will follow.
We still do not know the full and long-term effects of how growing up with the internet is rewiring our brains, affecting the way we think, our moral compasses and the human psyche, soul and intellect, and affecting the way we socialise, learn about history and of course consume news and accept what is the truth. The internet of everything, where all our devices are connected—our car, our central heating, our washing machine, our security system—is the new buzzword. The internet has transformed the way we shop, the way we bank and the way run our lives. Artificial intelligence will soon match human intelligence, and virtual reality will allow us to have experiences with unbelievable realism from the comfort of the living room which, in the real world, would be highly dangerous. Of course virtual reality pornography is already on the horizon, which makes me weep.
Developments such as 3D printing and DNA memory storage are still in their infancy, and the possibilities are endless and enthralling. But the accelerated rate at which new exciting possibilities are being introduced is hard to keep up with—it is mind boggling. Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once said that one day technology will be “indistinguishable from magic”. I believe that is true—it is happening right now. Since prehistoric times, humanity has progressed through many ages—Stone, Bronze and Iron—but never before has there been such a dramatic global change, which surpasses even the Industrial Revolution. In 50 or 100 years’ time, will we look back and wish we had done things differently and not allowed such a rapid and uncontrolled development without considering the long-term implications and consequences, and how our children are being affected both mentally and physically?
The report shows that since 2005 the time children spend online has more than doubled, with some spending on average 24 hours a week online. That is why children need time out when they are online, the same way as if they were playing a physical game, or a sleep mode to allow them to get a good night’s sleep. Teachers will tell you that children come to school tired after having watched a film, television or online material for hours rather than sleeping. We need to teach children how to resist temptation, how not to allow the online world to control their existence, and how not to be seduced by social networking and readily share personal information without first learning about privacy and trust.
Pandora’s box has been thrown open and the virtual fairies and digital demons have been released to play among us. But we must not be completely taken over with the exciting rush of endless possibilities of things we can do, because not all progress is good. But let us not be pessimistic, as it is up to us to find ways to calmly move forward and rein in the tsunami of progress, separating the good from the bad, the essential from the dangerous, and to put measures in place so that our children can grow up and learn to use the internet to make the world a better, kinder and safer place.
I have dedicated my life to the well-being of children, and as I keep repeating, childhood lasts a lifetime. I doubt whether I will be around to see what effects the internet will have on our children or, in fact, on humanity. But I hope and pray that it is good and that in centuries to come, humankind will not look back with regret at the massive irreversible impact it has had.
I am proud to be part of this milestone report and I urge everyone to read it. I look forward to working with the Government to ensure that we leave a beneficial, lasting legacy for future generations.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very grateful to the Select Committee for this report, and I agree with so much that has been said already. So many young people today source their identities from social media and internet advertising, which has resulted in low self-esteem and poor mental health. Over the last 18 months or so, I have been spearheading a campaign called Liedentity, which is focused around body image and challenging the lie that our value comes from our physical appearance.
I have had the privilege of meeting young people in primary and secondary schools in Gloucestershire, and much of what I have heard from them resonates with the recommendations of this report. As the report highlights, children live in a world where being online is interwoven with every aspect of their everyday lives, and young people do not want discussion about the internet always to begin from an angle of prohibition. It is undoubtedly good that there is a clear commitment to keep children and young people safe online. We need child-centred design, a code of practice and adequate procedures, but all that must sit within a wider context of human flourishing and human relationship.
I was glad to read the recommendations on digital literacy, which is placed within relationships education at primary level and PSHE at secondary level. This is about much more than a safety agenda. During a session with some sixth-formers recently at Stroud High School, I was struck by some of the girls’ reflections on the use of certain social media sites. They had absorbed the message that all life is made up of perfect sunsets, classically beautiful bodies and constant smiling. This had resulted in a feeling that their lives were inadequate, and it was only in face-to-face discussion with their peers that myths were dispelled and they were able to talk about the struggles of their lives as well as their joy in an honest and deeper way, in places of both agreement and disagreement.
I hope there will be a children’s digital champion, and that that person will keep human relationship as the large canvas when working with others, not least the Department for Education. In the diocese of Gloucester we have been working with a branding and innovation agency spearheaded by Marksteen Adamson, which has developed a wonderful resource called Peel, as in “peel back”. The programme involves young people listening to one another face to face before they then take photos of one another in a way that reflects something of what they have heard in the other person. An exhibition of Peel was held recently during London Fashion Week, and it was poignant to hear the young people reflect on their experience of participating, amid the culture of the selfie, in the self-awareness and awareness of the other person before taking the photograph. We are now working on a format that can be used by schools in a forum such as PSHE alongside digital literacy, and there is already a lot of interest.
I want to underline a key point that resonates with the report: ensuring that proposals and initiatives remain child-centred and young-person-centred. I have found again and again that young people want to be involved with identifying the solutions. They want to work with adults, not to be told by adults. So I am delighted to see that the government response contains a commitment to round-table discussions with children as part of the online-safety consultation. In one of my recent sessions a sixth-former spoke forcefully about informing her parents what they could and could not let her younger sister access on the internet. She knew what had been detrimental to her own mental health and was determined that her younger sister was not going to relive her experiences. Furthermore, as the report has highlighted, young people themselves are often the first to know when something is unhelpful, and they need to be able to have control over the removal of material that is detrimental to their well-being.
That brings me back to my gratitude for this report and my hope that it will play a significant role in enabling young people to flourish and nurture healthy relationships as they grow up in a world where the internet is a key part of the landscape.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his Communications Committee on its excellent report, Growing Up with the Internet, which I very much welcome. The subject area that it highlights is hugely important and one that I have sought to address through five online safety Bills and, this year, through my Digital Economy Act 2017 (Amendment) (Definition of Extreme Pornography) Bill.
Noble Lords will recall that since 2013 the big four ISPs have provided customers with an unavoidable choice about whether or not to have adult content filters or, in the case of Sky, default-on adult content filters. Having considered the experience of the big ISPs since 2013, the committee’s report makes two key recommendations about adult content filters. First, paragraph 258 recommends that, rather than having a voluntary approach to adult content filters presented in different ways by some but not all ISPs, there should be a statutory obligation on ISPs to provide adult content filters, and this should be presented in the default-on format.
Secondly, paragraph 259 recommends that the process of filtering should be informed by common and transparent standards to empower parents to make use of adult content filters, so that they do not get nasty shocks as they move from one ISP to another. It also highlighted the need for mechanisms to deal with overblocking. Given that the Government previously stated that filtering presents what they called a “vital tool for parents”, I contend that it is now imperative that the Government act on these recommendations.
This is all the more important now, given that they have rejected the general introduction of age verification checks for all online adult content, not just pornography, proposed in another place by the right honourable Member for Basingstoke last year. To this end, I am disappointed that in the Government’s response to the committee, they have rejected both recommendations.
I very much welcome the opportunity provided by today’s debate to examine their argument for doing so, which they presented in three paragraphs of their formal response, sent by the Secretary of State to the committee in July. I will now examine the response in a little detail. The first and third paragraphs engage with the committee’s recommendation in paragraph 258. The first paragraph takes up some space defining how the current system works, and then says that it works well. It continues:
“ISPs are best placed to know what their customers want, and to deliver flexible parental control tools that keep up-to-date with rapid changes in technology. A mandatory approach to filters risks replacing current, user-friendly tools (filtering across a variety of categories of content, but built on a common set of core categories) with a more inflexible ‘top down’ regulatory system”.
The problem with this is that the assertions that the current system works well and that ISPs are best placed to deliver what their customers want are read as assertions and completely fail to engage with the critical piece of evidence that the Communications Committee brought to the attention of the Government and your Lordships’ House at paragraph 251. The report highlights dramatically different filtering take-up rates between active choice, used by most of the big ISPs and default on, used by Sky. It states:
“Evidence shows that the usage of Sky’s filter systems is far higher than that of the other ISPs, as would be expected with a default on system. Customers are free to switch the filters off, but there are a significant number who do not actively choose to”.
If you examine the oral evidence given to the committee and the Ofcom report on internet safety measures, Strategies of Parental Protection for Children Online, you see that the difference in take-up between active choice on the one hand, which is used by the other big ISPs, and default on, used by Sky, is certainly not slight; it is dramatic. We are talking about a difference between an 8% to 10% take-up rate with active choice and a more than 60% take-up rate with default on. Indeed, if you read the oral evidence, you will see that this claim is made all the more striking by the fact that Sky initially adopted active choice. After getting only an 8% to 10% take-up, it moved to default on. As Sky told the committee:
“We have considered both options and we are pretty confident we have got the right outcome, if the objective is high parental engagement and high take-up of controls”.
The report acknowledges that this makes complete sense by referencing the evidence of Dr David Halpern, who headed up the nudge unit at No. 10 for some years. He noted that people have,
“a very strong tendency to stick with whatever the default had been set at”.
If the Government are serious about keeping children safe online, how can they cast aside the crucial recommendation to require statutory adult content filters on the basis of default on? It is one thing not to take steps to promote default on in the absence of clear evidence that it works, but quite another to do nothing in the face of clear evidence that it does—and works much better than active choice. With the knowledge that default on works much more effectively comes a responsibility to act, if we want to do right by our children.
To this end, I am disturbed by the fact that the Government simply dismiss the proposal and that the justification that they provide does not attempt to engage with or criticise the relevant evidence that the committee has presented. It rather suggests that they do not have a good justification for adopting these positions but have decided none the less to accommodate a situation in which most ISPs continue to operate active choice. If the Government have a real and relevant reason for not requiring default-on filters, even though the evidence clearly demonstrates a far higher take-up rate than with active choice, will the Minister please share it with us?
I now turn to the third paragraph of the Government’s response to the Communications Committee’s recommendations on filters, which completes their response to the recommendations in paragraph 258. Like the first paragraph of the response, this paragraph ignores the point of central importance—the evidence that default-on is a much better tool for protecting children than active choice—and focuses instead on the proposal that ISPs be required to offer adult content filters by law rather than through self-regulation. It contends that the big four ISPs—which are already doing this—cover 95% of the market and that all the remaining ISPs do not service households with children and are, consequently, not relevant. Two points must be made in response to this. First, this is a completely irrelevant argument with respect to the case for requiring ISPs to present filtering in the default-on format, since most of the market does not benefit from this on any basis.
Secondly, while it most certainly is the case that some of the smaller ISPs that account for the rest of the market after the big four do only service businesses, this is not so for all of them. Unless we want to effectively say that some children do not matter, we have to address the smaller ISPs that service homes with children.
I now move to the second key recommendation of the report, in paragraph 259, which states:
“Those responsible for providing filtering and blocking services need to be transparent about which sites they block and why, and be open to complaints from websites to review their decisions within an agreed timeframe. Filter systems should be designed to an agreed minimum standard”.
This recommendation deals with three things: the need to be transparent about filtering standards; the need for a minimum standard; and a mechanism to deal with over-blocking. The only paragraph left in the Government’s response to the two filtering recommendations in paragraphs 258 and 259 is the middle one. This deals with over-blocking and does not cause me any concern, but has nothing to say about the need for common filtering standards. It means that the Government’s response to the committee’s filtering recommendations has not engaged at all with one of its key proposals.
ISPs have considerable power in setting filtering standards and, in the absence of common standards, the challenge of keeping children safe online becomes that much more difficult. As paragraph 52 of the report elaborates:
“Children use multiple devices to access digital services and can connect from their home network, school, friends’ houses, or by using public wi-fi and mobile networks”.
According to the BBC:
“These can all have different levels of filtering and present challenges to parents who want to try to control their child’s use of the internet”.
Parents who are used to a certain set of filtering standards under one ISP assume, not unnaturally, that the same standards apply generally. This can be a challenge if, in addition to using the internet at home, your child also uses it in other contexts where filters are applied but by other ISPs, for example at school, through public wi-fi in a cafe, through the internet at a friend’s house, et cetera. It is also an issue for families who change their ISP and assume that family-friendly filters provided by another ISP will subscribe to the same standards. It is because of this that my Online Safety Bills have required Ofcom to set filtering standards further to a public consultation.
I am under no illusion that filters make the internet safe—they do not. Filters do, however, help to make the internet safer for our children, and given that the Government have refused to introduce age-verification checks for other forms of adult content beyond pornography, they remain vital. I am disappointed that the Government have failed to engage properly with the important recommendations in this report on filtering, especially the imperative for sanctioning default-on above active choice, and the need for common standards. I ask that when the Minister responds, she provides a proper response to the filtering recommendations in the report that actually engages with the presenting arguments, or that she agrees to take another look at this.
My Lords, this topic is of great and growing importance. Reading the New Statesman the other day, I was struck by a quite extraordinary suggestion in an article by Marie Le Conte. Embarrassing pictures of our future Prime Ministers and senior Ministers and comments they have made will exist, most likely on the devices of other people, and may well emerge in future. This will no doubt become commonplace and a recurring scandal in future. This process is already becoming a regular occurrence among unfortunate younger Members of the other place. This is a great shame, in my view. An enormous number of good and talented people will be laid low or barred from careers in public life due to minor indiscretions, which are on the public record for ever.
As legality and public morality diverge, I feel the classic link drawn by Lord Bowen, of the man on the Clapham Omnibus, can no longer be said to hold. Our representatives will act, speak and pose legally, but will be held to standards that did not exist at the time, and which they could not possibly have predicted.
The direction of travel at this time certainly appears to be towards a stricter regimen and harsher rules when it is broken. It is in that spirit that I endorse this report and the great number of sensible and practical proposals it proffers to the Government, which will find cross-party support. In some cases, I do not think it goes far enough. It is my view that social media companies should not merely up their game in helping their clients to delete content, but should positively transform it. They ought to provide for mass deletion of all activity on public profiles in set periods of time and start offering the service immediately. It is a nonsense that youngsters might be held accountable for comments they wrote at a young age, and even more nonsensical that they be forced to delete them one by one.
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are not poor companies. They are not incapable or lacking in talent. They deal in data, and that is why they are so unwilling to aid their clients, but that is what they must do. Throwing their hands up, they might exclaim that they are mere platforms—passive facilitators to their users. But as the report notes, the hostile and competitive edge they engender further spurs the need for their users to be provocative. Future adults will want to put their past behind them. They deserve the right to do so.
This is not an attack on social media. It is an acknowledgment of the need for good regulation. Social media brings connectivity and other benefits, but strips the right all of us here enjoyed in our youth: that of indiscretion. Let us embrace the benefits, but also uphold the rights. There is a need to hold those in public life accountable for their actions, but children and youngsters do not deserve that scrutiny.
I agree with the need for a children’s digital champion in the Cabinet Office, but will the Minister consider adding that responsibility to an existing ministerial role? This would provide a dedicated governmental champion to address these issues, and a complementary political leadership to the Civil Service bureaucracy. Will my noble friend also lay out what timescale she thinks is reasonable for the publication of a code of conduct following meetings with industry leaders?
My Lords, when I put my name down to speak in this debate I asked to go on late, for reasons to do with having to occupy the Woolsack for a bit. I knew that when I got to the end of the debate there would be little left for me to say. I did not quite anticipate feeling that everything that I might have wanted to say had not only been said by other people, but said so much better and with so much more passion and authority than I could possibly muster that, frankly, every ounce of confidence I ever had about participating in this debate had drained out through my toes. I will therefore make only a few brief remarks, which are reflections on what I have heard in the debate.
I am a member of the Communications Committee, which I joined just as this piece of work was getting under way, so I participated in it. I thank our sometime chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the skilful way he led us—in our very different states of grace in relation to the information we were given—to a series of conclusions to which we were all happy to sign up and to which I here publicly sign up. I do not intend to tell the House all the reasons why I agree with the report, because at the end of this long debate that seems entirely redundant.
I will, however, say something that bears on something the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said about—I may get this wrong—Facebook for Dummies and for “senior dummies”. I fall into the dummies category but not yet into the Facebook category. I make it clear that part of the reason I struggled to understand a lot of what was put in front of us as this report took shape was that I have resolutely set my face against participating in social media. The reason for that is not because I do not know how to use the internet—I do, pretty much, and I use it—or because I disapprove it in some high-minded, moral way. It is because I do not wish to know the things it wants to tell me. That includes all the kind of rubbish that runs about on Twitter—and I say that knowing full well the sort of rubbish that is—and all the trivial stuff that my children and now, increasingly, their children, want to say to each other through Facebook, Twitter and other things.
I can use WhatsApp and am very pleased to do so, because I can get lovely photographs of my grandchildren and take lovely photographs of the hedgehogs that live in my garden and send those to my grandchildren. That seems entirely benign. What is not benign is the impact of, first, some of the content available through social media networks—much of which has been extensively described, or at least alluded to, as the debate has gone on—and, secondly, the amount of our children and young people’s brain space and time that is being taken up by stuff which, yes, of course, has great value and is extremely useful to them in lots of ways, including in facilitating some social relationships, but much of which is at best trivial and at worst downright harmful.
I am not foolish enough to think that you can stuff any genie back in its bottle, so I do not subscribe to the view that by simply saying “We don’t like this” we can make it go away. The report does not in any way try to do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, referred to being perpetually in a state of catching up. What the report tries to say is that we will be running behind the developments that the large tech companies can come up with and behind the ability of young people, for whom it is a natural part of their lives to use that technology for uses of which we may approve and of which we may not approve. But although we will continue to be on the back foot as legislators, or indeed just as old people—I do not mean to imply that everybody in this debate is old, but I am—in all seriousness, we must not therefore decide that nothing can be done.
I learned so much from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in the course of this report’s creation, as I did from all my colleagues, from our special advisers and from many of the witnesses who came before us. I listened to her yesterday proposing several amendments to the Data Protection Bill, which she is supporting along with other Members of your Lordships’ House, and it was an absolute masterclass in clarity and focus, which was bedded in very deep knowledge about the issues that we are discussing this afternoon. I have heard others speak today from exactly comparable depths of knowledge and all of them, including in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, are saying that there are things we can do. They may not be absolutely infallible, may have to be changed and may address only some of the issues that worry us, but something can be done.
I do not need to repeat what those things are because they are in the report and lots of others have talked about them. But will the Government, and the noble Baroness on the Front Bench when she replies, please take seriously the strong indications given by the report that it is not good enough to say, “This is too difficult”? It is difficult and there will be resistance from very powerful interests that do not wish, for perfectly obvious reasons, to have constraints placed on their ability to operate as commercial entities. We do not have to see them as monsters; we simply have to see them as commercial entities acting in their own interests. In lots of situations, we want to encourage people to act commercially in their own interests. But there is a great deal about the way in which tech companies, large and small, are—I hesitate to say this but I will—preying on our children that is absolutely not benign. It does not conform to any of the values to which I think most people in this place today, and beyond, think that we should subscribe.
One of those values is something that arose from the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, about the centrality to our ability to live fulfilled lives of direct human contact and relationships. When I walk down the street, I see groups of young people who are physically together, but every single one is looking at his or her phone. I cannot help but think, “Why are you doing that? What on your phone is so much more beguiling than the person next to you who is your friend?”.
I do not know the answer, but we must ask the question, and we must surely attempt to require more of these very powerful corporations, of which we have need and of which we are in some awe—let us be honest. If you are me, you really do not get how they do it, but you jolly well know that they do, and that they have a responsibility to those who are growing up now, which means that we must require of them the highest possible standards. I recommend to the Government that the very first thing that they do to make this happen is accept the amendments to the Data Protection Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, which had the support—as I understood it yesterday afternoon—of many people across the House, on all sides. That would be an extremely good place to start, although it will certainly not be the end.
My Lords, I share the problem that the noble Baroness had of going late in the debate, and I fear that she has only made the problem worse. I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the committee on this very thought-provoking report, and to the noble Lord on his excellent introduction to this debate. I also welcome the Government’s response and the Green Paper—and, especially, the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Shields.
This is an area that is close to my heart, partly because I have worked in the technology industry for the last couple of decades, but more so because I have two teenage sons. It is very easy for discussions about the internet and children to focus solely on the negatives, and I fear I may end up doing this too, so I wanted to start by stating that the internet is overwhelmingly a good thing and still a good thing for children, too. It allows access to information in a way that is unparalleled in history; it facilitates communication and social interactions globally; it provides opportunities for creativity and self-expression; and it provides entertainment opportunities that I would have loved to have as a child—possibly not the same sort of entertainment opportunities as the right reverend Prelate referred to earlier.
I am struck by the way in which my youngest son, having been uprooted from London to the wilds of south-west Scotland, has been able to keep up with his old friends. I often find him, headphones on, shooting aliens on the television screen while chatting away to his friends in London and playing with them. In the past, maintaining such friendships would have been very difficult. So it is not all bad. However, as this report so clearly sets out, there are real challenges. I talked to my children’s school in preparing for this debate. I think it fair to say that uncontrolled screen time, particularly connected with social media, is now seen as the single biggest issue. The negative effects on children’s mental health was mentioned several times. One comment from a housemaster especially stood out for me. He said:
“I believe we are starting to see this within our boarding houses: isolated individuals existing in their own bubble, ignoring the real world around them”.
The report sets out many recommendations, all of which I agree with, around filtering, firewalls, time out, age-appropriate content and design, the right to be forgotten, and so on. These are fine as far as they go. However, any 12 year-old worth his or her salt can easily get around any and all of these—I know that my children have done it with me. The internet and technology are moving so fast, and are so global in nature, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to regulate and control effectively and fully. Equally, those sorts of restrictions do not solve the problem of screen time and social media raised by the school.
I am not saying that we should not take all these actions, as we absolutely should; rather, I am saying that we must recognise their limitations. That genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. The only answer, I believe, is education from an early age. The report talks about digital literacy, and I agree fully with those witnesses who said that,
“children themselves need to grow up digitally literate”.
I echo a number of noble Lords in strongly agreeing with the report’s recommendations that digital literacy should become,
“the fourth pillar of a child’s education”.
The Government’s response and the Green Paper recognise that, and the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, reinforced it, but perhaps understandably they tend to concentrate on online safety. Of course, this is important, but I think that we really need to go further. We must give our children the tools to be safe, but we must also give them the tools to be able to get the best out of the incredible resource that is the internet. We need them to develop a critical awareness of what is out there, how to evaluate and deal with what they come across and how to handle the many interactions that they will have, but also how to recognise the potential negative effects on them and how to be able to self-regulate.
Just as the internet has become a core part of our children’s lives, so it should become a core part of the curriculum. It should not just be part of computer science lessons, which many children—my own included —see as geeky, technical and irrelevant. The ability to critically evaluate information, relationships and social interactions is not just an internet skill; it is a wider life skill and one that children need.
However, importantly, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, that education must include parents. The report and the Green Paper touch on this but in my view do not go far enough. This morning during Question Time, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, said that parents need to take greater responsibility for their children’s online activities—a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, made perhaps even more forcefully. I agree but, speaking for myself at least, parents need much greater help and guidance to achieve it.
I consider myself to be relatively tech savvy, but I am not a “digital native”, much as I hate that phrase. I did not grow up with social media or mobile phones. My children simply cannot understand a time without such things. It is as alien to them as the age of the dinosaurs—something that they often tell me I belong to. Equally, their reliance on social media is a mystery to me. I know I am not alone in the internet and screen use becoming more of a battleground than a discussion with my children. Bring back the days when the battles were over broccoli.
Parents need help to understand what their children are, or may be, up to online, the potential effects of too much screen time, the risks of becoming too dependent on social media “likes”, and the impact of filter bubbles and echo chambers, and so on. In short, parents need to be given the tools to be able to help their children get the most out of the internet while managing the risks. I wonder whether joint lessons provided by schools, with children and parents attending together, might provide a basis for family discussion, replacing some of the heat with light. I, like the committee, am hopeful that the new generation of teachers who have grown up with the internet will be a great help in all of this.
Screen time, for me, is an area of particular difficulty, and the lack of clear guidance from either schools or government makes it difficult to enforce limits. As the parent of any teenager knows, a 15 year-old knows best and parents know nothing. It is very hard to apply restrictions to your child when all their friends have greater freedoms. As a parent, and speaking very much for myself, I would greatly welcome clear guidance on this subject.
As a final point, I think that we all have a role to play. It is not just our children who have become over-reliant on the internet and their devices. How many of your Lordships have looked at their phones while we have been in the Chamber today? I know that I have. Perhaps we need to lead by example. I will leave the last word to my sons’ school:
“We need to help our children to regain control of their devices, as opposed to their devices controlling them”.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in what has been a passionate and instructive debate. I must begin, however, with a word of apology to the noble Lord, Lord Best. I heard the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in penitential mood and feel that, as a Free Church man, I must follow in his footsteps. I apologise to the noble Lord for being just a little late in arriving. I ran up the stairs, I promise, and hope I can count on his indulgence. His speeches are not anything I would miss; I am still dealing in my head with the package for old people when they need to move house, the subject of the last speech I heard him make in this House. He may rest assured that I shall hang on to his every word.
I am grateful on behalf of all of us to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and to the other five members of the committee who have contributed to the debate. The noble Lord steps down now from his responsibilities. It has indeed been a golden age and I congratulate him on that. I say congratulations also to the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, as he takes over. I will say the same word in the language of heaven: “Llongyfarchiadau”.
The report is splendid, but what a privilege to speak in this point in the debate having had the opportunity to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who is a very honoured and honourable man in his own right. The newspaper headlines not a few months ago did not half catch the spirit of the man: did they not call him “the man who blocked Theresa May’s Brexit”? Perhaps that is too controversial for someone making his maiden speech, but it is a delight to have him here. As the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, referred to, he has been here before—but we have had to wait for this pleasure. WB Yeats wrote a poem, and in my Church tradition we have a doctrine, called “The Second Coming”. It seems to me that that may be what we have had today. In the poem, there is described a “ceremony of innocence”. The simple routines and rigmaroles that have attended the making of his speech today suggest that.
It is in the same poem that we read that the “centre cannot hold”. The debate about the internet suggests that that might be a danger facing us, too. In such a moment of crisis, says the poet,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I believe that we are living at such a moment in our history. This is an issue that concentrates the dangers, as well as opportunities, that we have been debating this afternoon.
As has been referred to by others, only yesterday the Committee stage of the Data Protection Bill took place. In that debate we went into all the questions that were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, which I will come back to in a moment. As well as that coinciding with this debate, I have had to miss a two-day event organised by my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen—yesterday and today—which brought together in an ingenious way children and experts to look at the question of children’s mental health and access to justice. The committee whose report we are discussing did consult children, and the conference to which I referred had children in its midst. We have heard reference in this debate to the need to listen to children. I hope that those discussing the Bill will be as aware of the need to hear from children as the members of the committee and my noble friend Lady Massey and her cohorts have been.
With the protection of the GDPR, which we have all been conscious of, which frames rights and activities for children, it is vital that we see to it that the way that it acts itself out strengthens the safety of children and avoids watering down protections currently enjoyed.
I will do my best. I beg the noble Lord’s pardon for being so direct. It is pronounced “Voh”. Never mind—we know who we are talking about.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, referred to speeches made just yesterday in Committee on the Bill. Echoing things that have been said, if I could do the verbal equivalent of copying and pasting the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the noble Baroness, Lady Harding of Winscombe, and someone to whom she referred in her speech—the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox—and now add to them a voice I have heard today, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, what a foursome we would have. They could front responsible legislation that would have a chance of meeting all the objectives that we set ourselves. I say to the Government: why on earth can that not be done? We have the expertise, the insights and the energy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shields, talked about the laws that were needed to protect children, and she speaks, I understand, from within the Prime Minister’s office. I suppose she will disclaim any further claims and say that she speaks in her own right, but she has the ear of the Prime Minister, who we know is not deaf. So will Ministers in this House take the advice that she so strongly gave in her speech? We need her voice, her energy and the points she made in her discussion. Together with the other noble Baronesses I described, we would be in safer hands.
One other recommendation in the report picks up what I have already said. It states:
“We further recommend that the Government should commission a version of the code of conduct which is written by children for children and that it builds on ‘in depth’ contributions of young people from existing research”.
There it is in the report. We are all saying nice things about the report, but nice words are not enough.
Parenting has been picked up again and again by various Members who have spoken. Indeed, we have heard of the family circumstances of children who have or have not done this or done that as part of the growing-up exercise. I, too, therefore feel justified in introducing that note. The development of resilience was mentioned by one noble Lord. We had a Question about that today. Parents are not digital natives, according to the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg. It cannot be left to parents said the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd—I shall say that several times. Cwmgiedd is near Ystradgynlais, for those who do not know. We need an awareness package for parents, said the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I will introduce my daughter at this point, and indeed all my children. I taught them to read and write; my wife taught them to count. Between us we licked the platter clean. The point is that as I helped her to form words that are precious to me, and as I helped her to understand the music of language and to enter into the reading exercise that opens up worlds, I was teaching from a culture that is mine into her nascent consciousness.
She would soon outgrow anything that I could teach her; that is not the point I wish to make. It is that I was using raw materials that are particular to me, that belong to me and are part of my culture, education and experience, and she picked them up and became a linguist. She speaks all the languages that you can think of, and I can make my way in some of those languages, too. But when I went to China, where she lived for three years, then Cambodia, where she lived for 10, I found myself in contexts where I could not make cultural sense of anything around me. She became my teacher.
I am thinking about the internet at a philosophical level. Parents of our generation were able to inculcate the cultural norms that were particular to us. I have watched my children; they learned about the computer as an objective external reality they had to assimilate. My children are already being taught things with their children that they never learned. For the first time in history, we are living in a time where parents do not have what it takes to inculcate in their children the responses required for facing life and its challenges. Therefore, we must look for resources in an entirely different way. Many people, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, have said that the child is at the centre. Yes—but how on earth do we help them? How do we muster the forces that can surround them? That is a key question.
The debate has been invigorating. Onerous responsibilities have been put on the Government. I know the honourable Lady opposite—noble, not honourable; not that she is dishonourable—has been taking note throughout. However, the responsibilities are onerous and on huge challenges. Do we have a digital champion? Is that a helpful way to describe it? Does it matter if it is a Minister, a digital champion or anything else, as long as they are armed with the statutory powers to do what they need to do? That is what we were hearing, and I can see that other people in the debate have referred to the capacity of the commercial world to outstrip the legal and ethical norms we establish for ourselves being endless. We therefore have to find a way to intervene in that seemingly hopeless situation, to take the whole debate by the scruff of the neck again and do something about it. It has been a jolly good time and we are about to go for our well-earned rest. I was challenged in the report by the need to put the internet as a fourth pillar of the educational system. We have “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic”; I was challenged to find a word for the fourth pillar that began with an “r”—not that “writing” does, nor “arithmetic”. So, we have some flexibility. If anybody in the House can help with that challenge, I would be more than grateful—but I would claim it as my own.
Adding the word “digital” to the title of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport certainly recognises the way the internet and technology now inhabit the same space as, and underlie, all those other activities. However, adding a word is not enough. The Government need to take action to develop the skills and insights recommended in the report and take the necessary steps to avoid the exacerbation of divisions in society that may be caused by the abuse or misuse of technology. Robin Mansell puts it this way:
“The challenge isn’t only whether digital communication … is explorative or liberating, inclusive or exclusive, it is to keep in mind that … human agency still matters. It isn’t digital technology that makes society but human beings in their institutional settings who make the world”.
If that is true for adults, it is necessary for us to understand it on behalf of our children, too.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his committee for all their work on this subject, and to all noble Lords for sharing their insight. My goodness, what a fascinating debate and report.
The Government thank the committee for its timely inquiry into children’s lives online and its valuable contribution to an extremely important debate on communications and public policy.
I also welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. It is a difficult one to pronounce, but I will learn it and make sure I get it completely right next time if I have got it wrong. I thank him for his excellent maiden speech. He is a great addition to this House. He will bring an enormous brain here. I am pleased he is now free to give us his wisdom over the coming weeks, months and years to come.
The committee’s Growing up with the Internet report highlights the evolving digital environment that children experience and correctly identifies a number of potential risks that children face online, including access to harmful content, cyberbullying and loss of privacy. As the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, said, the report also pointed out that at one stage the argument was about vegetables and whether they had been eaten at tea, but now it is quite different: it is about whether we can take devices away.
The Government take internet safety very seriously for all users, particularly children. In our manifesto we committed to bringing forward a digital charter with the twin goals of making Britain the best place to start and grow a digital business, and the safest place in the world to be online. As my noble friend Lady Shields and the noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned, the Data Detection Bill is currently going through this House, bringing data protection laws up to date in line with the digital age.
As part of our work on the digital charter, we published the Internet Safety Strategy on
We have worked across government. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked, the Secretary of State has been engaging across parties—we will continue to do so—as well as with a wide range of stakeholders to produce a coherent strategy that not only looks at what the Government can do to tackle online harms, but seeks to work with industry so that technology companies can play their part in addressing harms facilitated by their platforms. The internet brings a number of challenges to our society and the Government need to react to new social norms. We are also clear that the rights and well-being of users—particularly children—need to be protected online, just as they are offline.
The committee called for an ambitious programme on digital literacy. As I mentioned, one of the key principles in the strategy is that all users should feel empowered to manage online risks and stay safe. We recognise that it is particularly important that children have the right knowledge and skills to be able to do this. As the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Gordon, mentioned, children are digitally aware at a younger and younger age.
The Internet Safety Strategy outlines the crucial role that education will play in improving children’s safety online and the importance of digital literacy, which was brought up in speeches by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester. We want to help children successfully manage online risks throughout their lives. DCMS will work with the Department for Education to ensure that online safety forms part of the new compulsory relationships education in primary schools and relationships and sex education in secondary schools, as well as personal, social, health and economic education if it is made compulsory.
We plan to hold a children’s round table better to understand their concerns about online safety. We also plan to hold focus groups with children so they can share their views of online safety. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said it was important to encourage peer-to-peer safety online programmes. We are very keen to do that, recognising the positive impact these can have on young people. By working through civil society organisations such as the Girl Guides and Scouts, we will enable further outreach to children and young people, and this will help embed our online safety messages. We know that a number of technology companies are already working in partnership with those organisations. Since the publication of our strategy, Facebook has announced funding for every UK secondary school to have a digital safety ambassador in partnership with Childnet International and the Diana Award. We warmly welcome this initiative.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lords Griffiths, Lord Addington, Lord Gilbert and Lord Vaux, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, talked about educating parents. We want parents confidently to engage with their children on online issues and we will work to ensure that they have the guidance they need, starting when their children are very young, and we will continue as they grow. We will task the renamed UK Council for Internet Safety, or UKCIS, with reviewing the online safety materials currently available and identifying any gaps in resources. As part of the internet safety strategy, the Government will work with social media companies to ensure that safety measures are built into online platforms so that parents can stay up to date.
The committee also recommended that we have minimum standards set out for industry. We are keen that industry plays its part in keeping users safe. Through the strategy, we are consulting on the introduction of a social media code of practice as laid out in the Digital Economy Act. The code will tackle conduct that involves bullying or insulting an individual online, or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate the individual.
Technology can play a key role in keeping children safe online, which is why we have dedicated a whole chapter in our strategy to support technical innovation which will improve user safety. The strategy focuses on supporting and developing a world-class online safety industry in the UK, providing better safety information to start-ups and app developers, and raising the awareness of existing safety measures. The noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Gordon, asked about voluntary action. We want to give industry the opportunity to show its commitment to online safety without being overly prescriptive, but if this proves unsuccessful, legislation will be brought under the broader digital charter work.
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety has already carried out pioneering work which has contributed to the online safety of children, including producing guides for industry, parents and schools. We will build on this work by expanding the council’s reach so that it covers all users and aligning its work to the priorities set out in our strategy.
As the internet expands and becomes increasingly fundamental to young people’s lives, it is importantu that we are able to address the dangers they face. We need to ensure that all users can access the benefits that the internet has to offer while being reassured that they have the capability to manage potentially harmful or inappropriate content. That is why we brought forward the internet safety strategy.
Several points were brought up by noble Lords that I want to address before I finish. I am afraid that I cannot really answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on technology and disabilities, but he has brought it up before and it is very important. I will take the question away and make sure that I can give the noble Lord a proper answer.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Benjamin, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester all referred to the children’s digital champion. The Minister for Digital is responsible for all digital matters in government and will work with ministerial colleagues across government and with a range of stakeholders, including the UK Council for Internet Safety, to keep children and young people safe online.
On the potential to create an ombudsman to independently handle requests by children to take down content in our internet safety strategy, we are consulting on whether social media companies should pledge greater transparency about the incidents of reporting that takes place on their platforms, as well as consulting on our code of practice, which will give companies guidance on how best to keep their platforms safe.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, talked about widening the scope of UKCCIS. We acknowledge the pioneering role that UKCCIS has played in promoting and championing improvements to child online safety in the UK and we propose building on this and remodelling UKCCIS to align with the internet safety strategy so that we can take a leading role in this work along with UKCCIS.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, talked about an international deal. We are approaching the challenges of online safety with leading international tech companies and like-minded democracies as we develop our thinking on the digital charter. As the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, mentioned, initiatives such as the WePROTECT Global Alliance will be vital in this area. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, in her very interesting speech, talked about education on critical thinking. The new computer curriculum was developed by experts and helps give children the tools they need to make sensible choices online. The citizenship curriculum also equips pupils with the knowledge and skills to think critically and to research and interrogate evidence. We are now considering what more should be taught in relationships and sex education to give children the knowledge they need to think critically about online relationships as part of digital literacy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, talked about filters. We believe that the current voluntary approach works well, as it engages parents to think about online safety but applies filters where they do not engage. We are certainly going to take this away and think about it further. The noble Lord, Lord Suri, asked about the timescale for a social media code of practice. We aim for this to be published in 2018.
This debate has showed the extraordinary expertise there is in this House on this subject. I think that the most important thing that the Government can do is to take away what has been said today and carry on working with all noble Peers in this House as well as the tech companies and all sectors involved to make sure that we get this right as we go forward in this incredibly fast-moving area.
I thank the committee for its report, which was one of the most fascinating I have ever read. It made it simple to understand what needs to be done. That is why the Government have taken it on board wholeheartedly and want to move forward with a lot of initiatives that it put forward. I thank the committee again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, and I look forward to carrying on this debate in the future.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and for the near-unanimous support for all the recommendations in our report. I kept thinking after yet another excellent speech, “What a cracking speech” and then there was another one. I really think we were treated to some remarkably good speeches this afternoon; many thanks to all concerned. It was a special privilege to listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. To have an ex-Lord Chief Justice with us is going to be tremendously helpful, not least in this particular field. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, as well, as the new chair. I can see that the committee is in very safe hands, and with the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, as the champion there, this is obviously a Welsh takeover of the whole enterprise.
Six members of my committee spoke, and I am going to be very unfair and single out my noble friend Lady Kidron because she was so helpful during the preparation of this report and is now championing changes in the Data Protection Bill that are gaining a great deal of support across the House.
I am grateful to the Minister. I was very pleased that the internet safety strategy is taking on board many of our recommendations. I even heard this evening that the idea of an ombudsman, which I am very keen on, is getting serious consideration. The big question is whether we can regard self-regulation, voluntary action, by industry as sufficient when the moment comes that the Government are willing to act—and it is clear from the Minister’s remarks that the Government are willing—as act they will need to do.
It is slightly strange and counterintuitive that the House of Lords is leading the charge not just about children but about the internet. Not everyone would have guessed that that is where we would be, but we are in the forefront on this and are very proud to be so. I hope that tonight is not the end but the beginning of an ongoing debate. I thank all noble Lords for taking part.