Social Media: News - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 11th January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Conservative 3:24 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for creating this opportunity for a hugely important debate. It seems to be my lot to follow her in a number of debates where she speaks so eloquently and passionately about the importance of protecting the vulnerable in the digital age. Since she has set out so clearly the challenges and problems of civilising the digital space, I will start by reminding us all of the opportunities and the value. Social media is something that the vast majority of the world now loves. We, our children and grandchildren and our parents and grandparents in various different ways all use it for good reason—because it adds real value to our lives. We and they genuinely enjoy the privilege of being able to communicate directly with whoever we want without any intermediation. As we think about the downsides, it is important that we put it in the context of the upsides and the huge possibility and opportunity that social media gives us all.

The technology itself really is morally neutral. It is what we as human beings do with it and how we configure it that drives the good and the bad. Clearly, we have to face into the bad. I am troubled by the trade-off of choosing between platform and publisher. I worry that we are ascribing old-world, analogue labels to a new-world digital phenomenon. It is akin to looking back 100 years and asking, is the car a bicycle or a train? It is neither and both. Instead of trying to look for an old world analogy, we have to really get into the detail of the new-world risks and opportunities, otherwise we just polarise the debate. I do not think it is a surprise that the biggest proponents of the publisher analogy are old-world publishers themselves, or that the biggest proponents of the platform analogy are the new media companies themselves. Methinks both of them have vested interests in this debate and we need to get into the detail properly of what is the potential and actual real harm that is happening in this new digital space.

For social media companies, this needs to be much more than fine words. I often think the sole job of the big social media companies, ably represented by very talented people in the UK, is to say no politely to every real request for change. At best, we get fine words and some money donated to education campaigns. What we do not get is what the social responsibility of a social media company ought to be, which is to roll up its sleeves and dedicate its really scarce resource, which is the engineers that develop the technology, to configure so that we can have the good and mitigate the bad. It will require genuine changes to the technology to have both, rather than just to polarise the debate. That is how we will tackle illegal extremist content, fake news, child protection and the protection of intellectual property rights in the space—by real technology changes.

The social media businesses, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has set out—the biggest, most profitable, arguably most successful companies of this millennium—have the resources and need to start putting them to work on these subjects. If they do not, we need to be willing and able to legislate to make them. It is a responsibility on us as legislators, and for government itself, to make sure that we get enough into detail that we are not ourselves conned into the Punch and Judy show of publisher versus platform but instead get into the detail of what can practically be done to ensure that we lean into the benefits of the new technology but protect the vulnerable and protect some of the most important things in our society, our very democracy and our freedoms, as a result.