Social Media: News - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:17 pm on 11th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:17 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords for their interesting and succinct contributions—I know how difficult that is on a subject such as this. I very much support the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in his view that this is part of a process and that we will not provide all the answers tonight. I hope that I will answer some noble Lords’ questions, but there is an awful lot to get through. Of course I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for convening this debate.

There is a lot to cover, but I say at the outset that the Government get the message which I think the House in aggregate is giving today, which is that social media companies and the way they work have developed rapidly and that there are issues that need to be considered. I hope that I can show that we are taking that seriously.

For example, I think we all agree that the internet offers a huge range of opportunities but, as we have heard, there are legitimate concerns about illegal and harmful content online. A number of noble Lords have expressed specific concerns about the role that major social media platforms play. Because we are so acutely aware that the internet can have both a positive and a negative effect on users, particularly children, the Government have developed a clear ambition, as stated in our manifesto commitment, to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. We aim to realise that ambition via policies developed through our new digital charter.

If I may initially confine myself to the noble Baroness’s Motion—which I know is not always the practice in this House—I must make the point that online platforms such as social media companies, auction sites and cloud service providers are, as has been alluded to, currently defined as information society services, as set out in European Union law. While we are still a member of the EU, the UK is subject to the e-commerce directive, but the directive was drafted in 2000, when the internet was in its infancy. The intention behind it was laudable: to create a regulatory environment in which cross-EU online commerce could flourish and prevent member states creating barriers to the growth of the digital single market. But since the turn of the century, digital technology has developed faster than society has adapted to that change, and citizens now have legitimate concerns about rising online threats. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, explained the dilemma that this creates.

Around the globe, it is now increasingly acknowledged that there are problems with online behaviour and content and that they must be addressed. The EU Commission recently published guidelines on how online platforms should increase the proactive prevention, detection and removal of illegal online content, and it is currently considering whether further action should be taken.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, asked about legal liability structures to which I alluded. I thought it would be helpful to show what the new Secretary of State said in his evidence to the Select Committee on polling and digital media—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, might be interested in the philosophical nature of this. He said:

“The approach that we take as a whole to the internet and internet companies is encompassed in what we call the digital charter. Essentially, this is about changing the attitude towards what happens online from a libertarian view that the more people connect in the world, the better, and that Governments should have no view, which was probably the founding political philosophy of the internet, to a liberal values view whereby you support and promote the freedom that the internet brings while ensuring that that freedom does not trample on the freedom of others. That involves mitigating harms”.

We agree, and as long as the UK remains a member of the EU, and bound by its rules, we will work closely with the Commission, and other member states, to secure further progress in this area. Of course, consideration of online liability is fraught with complexities, not least because we will be leaving the EU. Similarly, an ill-considered approach might also produce technical problems for online service providers. If they were to become fully liable for all third-party content, this could be fundamentally prohibitive to many service models, including those operated by cloud storage providers, video-sharing sites and others. Balancing these various interests is a delicate matter, but essential if we are to meet safeguarding concerns for users while still supporting the internet as a useful vehicle for exchanging ideas and promoting the digital economy.

These points are not intended in any way to downgrade the importance of tackling online harms, but rather to outline the need for a well-developed and, if possible, consensual approach. The digital charter is our primary response to the more fundamental questions of ensuring that new technologies work for the benefit of everyone. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, talked about new policy thinking. While I talk about that, I remind noble Lords that we intend to set up a data ethnics and innovation body, and we have allocated £9 million in this budget to do that. It could consider things such as the verification ideas that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, mentioned, and the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, of an innovation fund, among many other things. We intend to develop the policies and actions to make the UK the safest place to be online, and to drive innovation and growth across the economy.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, mentioned, that includes women, who are a valuable and essential resource. I am pleased to say that the Government are supporting the recently launched Tech Talent Charter, to which over 125 tech companies have already signed a pledge to take concrete measures to improve the gender diversity of their workforces.

What we are trying to achieve cannot be achieved by government alone. So we will work collaboratively with citizens, businesses, charities and others to build both our understanding of the challenges, and a consensus around the solutions. As I have mentioned, the challenges we face online are global. The international element was mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron, Lady Benjamin, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood, among others. It is at this global scale that we should be looking to gain consensus on our approach. We have already begun to hold international discussions on the key issues under the charter, including at the recent G20 digital taskforce in Hamburg. Going forward, we will look to expand this work, including bilaterally with like-minded countries such as France, and through multilateral organisations, including the OECD and the D5.

The very first element of the digital charter is our work on online safety, a reflection of how seriously the Government take this issue. In October, we published the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, an important next step in meeting our relevant manifesto commitments. The strategy set out our ambition for everyone to play a role in tackling online harms. For example, we are working closely with the Department for Education to ensure that online safety, which the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, mentioned, is part of new compulsory relationships and sex education curriculums, and that parents have the support they need to keep their children safe. We will certainly pass on my noble friend Lady Eaton’s suggestions about innovation to the department.

In answer to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on understanding how these large sites work and what they do, we acknowledge his point. The Department for Education issued a call for evidence late last year to help shape the new content and guidance, and we expect the new curriculums to cover digital literacy and critical thinking skills. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, had a debate recently about digital understanding, which was extremely useful and interesting. Alongside the publication of the strategy, a public consultation was launched, which asked for views on a range of new safety initiatives—this is the scope that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, asked about—that included a social media code of practice, a social media levy, and transparency reporting. The consultation closed on 7 December, with a good number of responses from a range of contributions.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, mentioned the report of his Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation in Public Life. I think that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester also mentioned that. We will address its recommendations in the government response, which is due to be published shortly.

As set out in the strategy, we are working with the main social media platforms on a voluntary basis because we believe that that secures faster results. However, the previous Secretary of State was crystal clear, and the new Secretary of State agrees, that we will not hesitate to bring forward legislation, if necessary. I hope that that commitment reassures my noble friends Lady Harding and Lady Fall. The age verification protections for online pornography show that we are willing to tackle online harms through legislative means. The internet safety strategy is not the only vehicle through which we will protect children online. I am very pleased to be responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, so soon after we worked together closely on securing improvements to the Data Protection Bill. I commend her persistence and firmness, but also her good humour. We have never once fallen out—yet!

I am sure that the House does not need reminding that the Government were pleased to support an amendment to that Bill to address the concerns of many noble Lords. We supported a statutory code of practice for age-appropriate design for all information society services. We look forward to working with the Information Commissioner’s Office to drive up the levels of protection afforded to children online.

Many noble Lords mentioned fake news. The Government are committed in their manifesto to protect the reliability and objectivity of information as an essential component of democracy. Work is now under way, also under the digital charter, to ensure that we have a news environment where accurate content can prevail. As my noble friend Lord Black said, it is the UK’s robust, free, wide, vibrant and varied media landscape that remains our key defence against disinformation.

I shall go through as quickly as I can some of the points that noble Lords have raised. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, mentioned competition policy. We have a world-leading competition regime, and we will continue to keep it under review. The Competition and Markets Authority recently announced a new technology team to strengthen its ability to deal with competition issues surrounding algorithms, artificial intelligence and big data. We are also setting up a new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, as I mentioned, which will be well placed to support the CMA in its work.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, talked about trust in the media. We absolutely agree with the trusted role of the traditional media sectors in the UK, but I do not believe that the trust has been eroded quite as much as some may fear by the newer forms of content. A recent Radiocentre survey in 2017 on levels of trust in media sources among UK citizens found that 77% of respondents trusted radio news, 74%—just under three-quarters—trusted TV news and only 15% trusted news on social media. The public are not complete fools.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who is my bishop, I might add—I do not mean “my” bishop; I must push on—asked why we are not establishing an independent digital commissioner. The Digital Minister, supporting the Culture Secretary, who is personally invested in raising the level of online safety, plays that convening role on this issue across government.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, talked about the filter bubble effect and I thank him for his interesting views on this. The Government consider the effect of news, advertising and other content being tailored algorithmically to personal preferences to be an issue. The work on the digital charter will consider this and what response is most appropriate.

I have an answer from the Box on the gambling questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked. It says, “We will write”. It also says, “Wrong officials in the Box”. But, more seriously, I have a reply in train to the noble Baroness on this subject, following the recent debate that we had on gambling. That is ongoing and I will write to her.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester talked about Germany’s new law, under which social media companies are fined for not removing hate speech on their services quickly enough. We are aware of that and, through the digital charter, we will look right across the range of potential solutions for tackling that issue. We will look at steps that other countries, including Germany, are taking to inform this work.

The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, asked what we are doing about online anonymity, which I think is an interesting point. We asked questions about online anonymity in the internet safety strategy consultation and we are analysing those responses. We will formally respond to them soon.

Online advertising was raised by my noble friend Lord Black and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. They were right to raise the role of online advertising in many of the issues discussed. We have a good advertising regulatory system but we recognise that there have been rapid developments in the marketplace. We are working alongside the Advertising Standards Authority to monitor developments and respond appropriately. This is a key part of much of our work under the digital charter, including ensuring that there are sustainable business models for high-quality online news media, protecting people’s personal data and ensuring that value created online is rewarded appropriately.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin and Lady Howe, asked about the BBFC and age verification in social media. The age verification regulator will not duplicate the Internet Watch Foundation’s remit. If, in the course of investigations, the age verification regulator identifies child abuse images hosted in the UK, it will report these to the IWF. We recognise the concerns about the availability of pornographic material on some social media platforms but, as we discussed during the passage of the Bill, it is our intention for age verification to apply to the pornography industry. Within the regulator’s powers will be the ability to notify ancillary service providers, including the social media platforms, if, for example, a person is using a social media platform to market their non-compliant website.

I want to end by repeating that the Government are very much concerned about the impact that online harms are having, particularly on young people and children. That is why we are launching a range of initiatives to keep people safe online—and we agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, that social media sites should take responsibility. Social media platforms should be aware that, if we do not get results, we will not be afraid to go further.