My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on bringing forward this debate. I declare my interests as set out in the register.
It is my firm view that it is almost invariably technology, not politicians—not us—which determines the character of the world in which we live. That is nowhere better illustrated than in the transmission of information, particularly through the development of digital technology. Looking back, let us consider how information has been transmitted. First, it was by word of mouth. Then writing was developed, which led to messages being moved backwards and forwards. Then there was printing, which made the messages much more widely available. That, in turn, was distributed ever more effectively, not least by the development of the railways. Then, in the 19th century, we saw the possibilities of transmitting voice messages through telegraph and radio. In the last century, moving images were transmitted through television and so on. We have seen the development of engineering, enabling reverse path messages to be easily available, payment systems, all kinds of point-to-multipoint messaging and the creation of a whole spider’s web of relationships. We have seen in all that the privatisation and democratisation of the process of transmitting information. Now we are in a world where it is relatively easy to create complicated images and then transmit them cheaply all around the globe. No doubt there is an awful lot that none of us can imagine which will happen in the near future. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the topography of this landscape changes and, a decade on, I dare say that it will be very different from what we see now.
As has been mentioned, the key player for the last 400 years or so has been the concept of the publisher, because it is he who draws together all that has been going on. He inevitably, then, becomes the focus of the relationship between the information and the law, because, after all, authors are frequently men of straw. Of course, our current concern hinges around platforms: are they publishers or are they distributors? In our country, historically we have taken a very pragmatic and sensible view about distribution: the distributor is a mere conduit necessary for the dissemination of information to take place, particularly if he does not know what he is transmitting. What are platforms? Are they simply distributors or are they publishers? After all, they generate huge amounts of advertising and make all kinds of selection via algorithms. As my noble friend Lady Harding said, the old distinctions just do not seem to work anymore.
Many of the ills that have been pointed to in this debate could be dealt with in a domestic context if they fall within domestic jurisdiction. However, the internet and the big players do not; that is, after all, the point of the internet. They are more or less effectively footloose and fancy free across the net if they wish to be so, so the old-style general legal-based approach to general regulation is completely impractical. Unless we have a single global jurisdiction, it will not work. Rather, Governments must get together with these companies, which after all need Governments and the consumers as citizens to work out a responsible way of developing codes of conduct and modus operandi. This will not necessarily be straightforward, and I think means that Governments will have to treat these companies analogously to those other countries they deal with in intergovernmental negotiations. I do not suppose they will like that but it seems to me that is how it is. This has implications for democracy and all other kinds of parliamentary and legal behaviour.
At the end of the day, we must not forget the most important aspect of all, the principle of freedom of expression, for that is one of the fundamental attributes of liberty.