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 Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:36 pm, 8th April 2019

My Lords, I am very grateful for the welcome by both noble Lords for this White Paper. Nevertheless, I am not complacent; I have worked with noble Lords opposite on several big Bills on digital matters and I know there is a lot of detail that will need to be included in the legislation. However, the principle that this is generally welcome and the fact that the main bones of the proposal are welcome—namely, the duty of care and the independent regulator—is good. We have made a point of saying that we want to work on a cross-party, consensual basis and one of the reasons for having an extensive consultation is to achieve that. In some ways, this is an old-fashioned way of making legislation, to the extent that we have had a Green Paper and a consultation, then a White Paper and a consultation: we hope that a lot of the issues can be ironed out, and some of the detail. The way we worked on the Digital Economy Act and the Data Protection Act shows that we can bring in some fairly big and complicated Bills in a consensual way.

The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, talked about children. They are very important to our thinking. We have not written a specific chapter on the subject because we want it hard-wired throughout the whole White Paper. From the day the regulator is formed, any company in scope will have to say that it is thinking about the customers and users of its products in the design of its website and products means that it will have to, as part of its duty of care, think about the age, vulnerability and sort of people who will use it. That is built into the system.

We thought a lot about the international aspects of regulating the internet, because there is no point having a regulator or enforcement system that cannot cope with the way the internet works, which is, by definition, international. We will therefore think and consult on some of the further sanctions we could put on internet companies, such as individual liability. We might require representatives in the country in the same way as the GDPR does. Ultimately, we are consulting on whether we should take powers to block websites completely. These are, in the main, money-making organisations—Google’s second-largest advertising market is in this country, for example. The internet giants have significant economic stakes in this country, and they could be faced with a very serious penalty.

Above all, we are not expecting the internet companies, large or small, to do anything unreasonable. Some appalling things go on the internet, and the regulator will look at the duty of care—as said in the Statement—as a risk-based and proportionate approach. The big internet giants will be held to a different standard from the small start-ups.

Both noble Lords talked about the regulator. There is a possibility that an existing regulator could either take on this job or create the regulator which may be divested later. We are consulting on that, and would be interested in the views of noble Lords and other stakeholders. It is important to bear in mind that time is of the essence. We want to get on with this. We want to get it right—but we want to get a move on.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, talked about some of the harms that are not just illegal. We absolutely agree. In some ways, the harms that are illegal are easy to deal with—they are illegal, and should be so offline as well as online—but things that are not specifically illegal, such as cyberbullying, can have a tremendous effect on people’s lives. We certainly take those into account. The internet companies will have to take a reasonable and balanced approach; they need to show that they are taking seriously harms that can really affect people’s lives, and that they are building their approach to them into the way they operate their companies. Terms and conditions should be met and abided by; there should be a proper complaints procedure, which we will demand be taken seriously, and there will be an appeals process.

The consultation actually started today. We have so far got eight responses. It will go on for three months, after which we will look at it. As I say, noble Lords are very welcome to contribute.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, talked about a change of culture. I think the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, implied the same thing. The point about this White Paper is that we are moving to a proactive system of regulation where we expect every company, be it large or small, to think in a proportionate way about the harms it could do and to take sensible measures not only to deal with them but to explain to the regulator what it is doing and to have transparent reporting. The regulator will be given powers to inquire of the internet companies what they are doing about these matters.