Online Harms - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:36 pm on 8th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 5:36 pm, 8th April 2019

My Lords, it is with pleasure and a great deal of relief that I speak to this Statement and the White Paper that lies behind it. Having sat through endless hours of the previous debates and the acrimony generated by them, and having found ourselves in places where I suspect none of us wanted to be, it is a pleasure to come to proper business again and to look at something that affects the whole of our society. We must find remedies and seek a legislative way forward that deals with the problems that we know are part and parcel of this innovative and brilliant thing that we call the internet and the technological advances that go with it.

Having read the White Paper and listened to the Statement, I am convinced that, across the Benches of this House, we must see this as unique in a party-political system in that we must act together. Consensual approaches and sensible resolutions to the problem are a duty that falls upon all of us. After all, the internet affects every part of our society—all of us have felt the questions it raises and enjoyed the wonderful opportunities it affords—so I hope that we can approach this in a consensual and cross-party way.

I congratulate the Government—is it not wonderful to hear someone from these Benches saying that?—on generating a report that is lucid and clear and will generate the kind of discussion that the consultative period, now beginning, will need. It is well laid out; my son is a printer, and he constantly beleaguers me about layout as I understand it and layout as he understands it, and he would be pleased with this. I can give no higher commendation. Congratulations are in order.

I know that we will have detailed, forensic debates when the results of the consultation are before us. At the moment, highlighting some of the headline aspects will have to do. The duty of care has been spoken to already and we must emphasise it; after all, we are all aware of those who are harmed by the abuse of the internet. Some well-publicised cases leave their images constantly before our eyes, especially when we think that some of them, indeed a lot of them, are children. In previous legislation that we have debated on the Floor of the House, we have talked about designing the internet in such a way that the interests and rights of children are protected. I am quite sure that we will take all that forward in the outworking of the further proposals in this White Paper.

We want to protect people from harms, and we will no doubt want to discuss what we think constitutes harms in the proper sense. There are indeed in this White Paper, rather conveniently, tabulated harms: those that are illegal, that are dangerous; that deserve attention. These are indicative lists, and no doubt we will want to move things from here to there and there to here, and add to and subtract from as time goes on, but it is a pretty good starting point to show us the range of conducts and activities that we will need to give attention to.

It is a bold White Paper. It claims to be bold and boasts of being bold. For me, there is one aspect that teases me, and I hope the Minister can give us some reassurance on it. It is the whole idea that while the internet and online activity affects us locally—in our homes and elsewhere—this has to be balanced against the fact that the companies, across whose platforms the material that generates these problems come, are global. We have seen how difficult it is to deal with the taxation aspects of these global companies. It will be equally difficult to think about legislation that could bring them all into line, and a word about that would be very helpful as we steer our way into the consideration of these proposals.

Statutory measures are mentioned, and I am delighted about that, of course, because these proposals and this way forward need to be underpinned by the full force of the law, and the regulator will be endowed with powers that are appropriate to the importance of the job. I wonder how we will bring a regulator to birth; some suggest that it should perhaps be an offshoot of Ofcom in the first place, that under the aegis of Ofcom we can get regulation built in to our way forward, and that it can evolve into something more complete later.

Any legislation that we bring forward will need to be nimble and flexible, because technology moves faster than the making of laws, and since the making of a law, as we know from the one we have been discussing, can be interminable, I hope that we will never be accused of tardiness in acting promptly, flexibly and nimbly to combat the downside of online activities.

So I congratulate the Government and I look forward to further debates and in greater detail.