My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, remarked that this is not the most computer savvy institution on the face of the globe, and no one is a better illustration of the truth of her statement than me. However, with the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Harding, my noble friend Lord Knight and others around me, I feel I can learn so much, to pick up the noble Lord, Lord McNally, at the end of his remarks, on this important subject, and ask myself how we proceed with this complicated material and the urgent need to find ways of dealing with what is clearly a priority for our society.
It is clear that online companies are coming under increasing pressure to move beyond their claim to be merely platforms for a broad and broadening range of interest groups and individuals, a catalyst for the free flow of knowledge and ideas and a factor in the democratisation of information. It is true enough that in some measure all these claims can be justified and attested. A great deal of information, an endless amount of social activity and a flood of ideas have indeed been greatly enhanced by the emergence and development of social media. We have cause to wonder at these developments. As I sit with my grandson, I see him handling things that make me wonder whether I would not have preferred to have died before he was born since the learning curve is sometimes so steep.
As many noble Lords have said, we have all become increasingly aware of the unquantifiable amount of dark, intrusive, prurient and dangerous material that flows along with the helpful and hopeful stuff. Through conversations in our social lives, we can detect rising unease among the public that is reaching a point, if it has not already reached it, of wanting to hold the great cartel of corporations who pretty much hold us globally in thrall to account. I have been delighted to hear of the work Google is now doing on tackling hard issues, such as fake news, supporting high- quality journalism, fighting extremist and controversial content, promoting child safety and educational campaigns and protecting intellectual property. Long may it continue, but I hope we will not be seduced by these siren sounds. We must go on giving intense scrutiny to this, and that note of urgency has been sounded again and again from all parts of your Lordships’ House.
There are key questions that these corporations, and we, must face. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, referred to them being taxed appropriately, and we must not lose sight of that, but their accountability for the material they handle and enable to pass into the public realm also needs to be faced. I believe they should be treated as publishers, perhaps bearing in mind the distinction that can be drawn between anonymous and unattributable material and that which can be attributed to authors and sources. This is a key moment in the history of the fourth industrial revolution. Just as the grim factories and satanic mills of 19th century England eventually and sometimes painstakingly had to come to terms with their responsibilities for the health and well-being of their workers, as well as for their impact on the green and pleasant land around them, so now we must press for a similar development in the realm of social media.
It is not appropriate to simply denounce or demonise the digital media. There are much more epistemological and historical things at stake which make this an opportune moment for social media to come to a rotting carcass and make the most of it. Indeed, fake news is invading our intellectual landscape like Japanese knotweed, yet it would be wrong to identify social media as being entirely to blame for what one writer describes as,
“the crash in the value of truth … comparable to the collapse of a currency or a stock”.
That assertion was made by the respected journalist Matthew d’Ancona in his recent book Post-Truth, which ended up in my Christmas stocking this year. To take a word from the remarks of my noble friend Lord Puttnam, trustworthiness—trust and truth—has collapsed but this has been going on for a long time, the pace accelerating since the financial crash of 2008.
“There are no facts, only interpretations”,
said Friedrich Nietzsche. The Manic Street Preachers, a group from my native land, released an album that said, “This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours”. There is an individualisation of statements of truth, the disappearance of a meta-narrative and the evolution of a world in which we make our own truths and set our own standards. When I was studying theology 50 years ago, there was situation ethics—the ability to reach ethical conclusions according to your own lights and experience, not by subscribing to something that was generally approved. It is against those general factors that we must look at what is happening in the realm of social media and digital materials that we are talking about today.
There are worries. We need only flag up the dark area that emerges from the freedoms that we are now given. Terrorists, paedophiles and money launderers have all profited from them. The current television series “McMafia” is a perfect illustration of how wrong things can go, in the words again of Matthew d’Ancona, like,
“a runaway train, crashing through privacy, democratic norms and financial regulation”.
If there is any truth in this line that what we are looking at specifically in the realm of social media needs to be mapped against a more general philosophical and moral situation that is historical and has been developing for a long time, we need to look very carefully—I like the word “nuance”, which the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, used. If there is any truth in this argument, we must all do something about it. It is not just the Government of course; everybody interested has a job to do in cleaning this whole situation up.
Two very current issues add urgency to the consideration of these matters. It was good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester refer to the Committee for Standards in Public Life and its recent report. It is vital, as the committee put it, to convene a constructive and solutions-focused dialogue between the social media companies and the political parties. Other noble Lords have referred to this too. It seems that Twitter and Facebook have both confirmed their readiness to participate in such a dialogue; others have yet to come on board. We must hope that they will join the debate soon, and that there will be a fruitful and beneficial outcome to their discussions.
I finish with the issue of press freedom, which was debated with such passion yesterday. I was just a bystander listening to the entire debate, but there is something immensely sad about hearing two opposing cases being put with equal conviction—two admirable cases but each made, I kept feeling, from within locked rooms.
So much has happened in the world of communication since the publication of the Leveson report in November 2012, nowhere more so than in the area we are discussing. Then, the focus of the inquiry was mainly on newspapers and related outlets. Since then, the expansion of digital media has been truly exponential. Alongside these developments, we must hope to create an ethical framework that allows us to distinguish relative positions of rightness and wrongness and appropriate behaviour.
I wonder whether the Government would seriously consider creating a new category of services and make the digital companies responsible for the content that passes their way, to bring into being a code of practice for social media companies and underpin it in statute. I wonder whether there could not be brought into being an independent regulator with the power to oversee the system, investigate breaches and ultimately sanction non-compliant platforms, and whether there should not be a statutorily backed levy on social media companies to fund internet safety education. None of those recommendations is mine; they are made by Sky and already submitted for inclusion in the Government’s Green Paper on internet safety. Let us hope we are moving in the right direction.
We are very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for starting this very rich debate. It is certainly not finished today.