My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her timely and important debate. I sit on the Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media. Over the course of many hours of taking evidence has come the growing and uncomfortable realisation that one of the key sources from which we gather our news may be open to manipulation. Where once we gathered our news from a trusted newspaper or broadcaster, we now have an infinite number of sources at our fingertips to navigate at high speed every day. We are less certain of our sources; our judgment of the content is clouded by the lack of context—and as for the content itself, this is a whole new world. It is a far cry from the regulated broadcasters, or even our self-regulated newspapers. This is a world where no one is made to feel responsible or accountable for what is said, least of all the media giants that provide the platforms. They have huge power with no responsibility.
Social media are sometimes a force for good and for necessary change, but often not. So we enjoy one of the greatest revolutions of our age, but with it comes the inside of Pandora’s box—a generation of young people who have to grow up under the constant pressure of social media, which must be in part responsible for a near epidemic of mental health issues. Online platforms offer all too easy access to indecent images of children and of terrorism. There are growing concerns about how our democracy is being undermined and manipulated, and concerns around so-called fake news and the lack of transparency in political advertising, as well as about what is real and what is a Russian bot. The media giants simply shrug their shoulders and say that it is not their problem, firm in their position that they provide the platform and the responsibility lies at the point of use. This is partly a matter of principle for them—a libertarian defence of freedom—and partly practical. How do you regulate something like the net, which is as shifting as a global desert? As the storm rages, we ask ourselves as we do today: what should be done? We can look at the question of whether the likes of Google and Facebook should be reclassified as publishers. I am yet to be convinced that this is the solution, for the reasons that many have given so well this afternoon, including my noble friend Lady Harding.
One thing is crystal clear: regulation in one form or another is coming to this sector whether it likes it or not. While we debate among ourselves the sort of regulation, social media giants should start trying a lot harder to solve some of these problems themselves. This falls well within their reach. Algorithms should be altered so that indecent images of all kinds are less easily accessed, if accessed at all. There should be more transparency around political advertising. Companies can do more to monitor the content on their sites and weed out the bots. It is simply not good enough to sit back and take no responsibility.
However, we must also be honest with ourselves that, while this battle is worth fighting, it is a battle that we will never entirely win. Ultimately, we must protect the integrity of our society and our democracy through the exercise of our own judgment, by learning to navigate the web from an early age and assessing the validity of what we read. This should be a partnership, with proactive social media and online platforms trying to fix the problems, regulation to address those which are not being fixed and vigilant citizens addressing those problems which might never be solved by either. Together we will never stamp out all the bad, but we are more likely to navigate away from it.