Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:37 pm on 30th 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 5:37 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I repeated a Statement in the House on the online harms White Paper on the day that we published it, 8 April. There was not enough time for all noble Lords who wanted to contribute to do so, and so the Chief Whip kindly made me available for noble Lords to make their points at greater length and with the benefit of more time to think about this difficult problem. I am grateful for the opportunity to listen to noble Lords’ views.

This White Paper is an important document and a world first. For many people nowadays, the internet is an integral part of daily life. However, illegal and unacceptable content and activity remain far too prevalent online. There is currently a range of voluntary initiatives that try to address some of these problems, but while there has been some progress, the efficacy and pace of these actions have varied widely across different companies. These inconsistencies still leave too many users unsafe online, and the current regulatory landscape lacks the scope and coherence to tackle this complex set of problems. That is why we have published this White Paper, which sets out an ambitious and coherent framework for tackling harmful content and activity. This will make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online, especially that of children and other vulnerable groups, and will help build trust in digital markets. The online harms we are tackling include behaviour that threatens users, particularly children and the vulnerable, and behaviour that undermines our national security or aims to fracture the bonds of our community and our democracy.

To tackle these harms, we intend to establish in law a new duty of care on companies towards their users, overseen by an independent regulator. This regulator will set clear safety standards, backed up by mandatory reporting requirements and effective enforcement powers. Companies will be held to account for tackling a comprehensive set of online harms ranging from illegal activity and content to behaviours that might not be illegal but are none the less highly damaging to individuals and society. They will be required to take particularly robust action to tackle terrorist content and online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

We recognise that a very wide range of businesses, such as retailers, consumer brands and service providers of all kinds, currently enable some degree of user interaction or user-generated content online. Although we will minimise excessive burdens according to the size and resources of organisations, all companies will be required to take reasonable and proportionate action to tackle harms on their services.

The regulator will have sufficient enforcement powers to take effective action against companies that breach regulatory requirements and to uphold public confidence, while also being fair and proportionate. These will include the power to levy substantial fines, and we are consulting on even more stringent sanctions.

As a world leader in emerging technologies and innovative regulation, the UK is well placed to seize the opportunities presented by the measures set out in the White Paper. We want technology itself to be part of the solution, and we propose measures to boost the tech safety sector in the UK, as well as measures to help users manage their safety online. Furthermore, we believe that this approach can lead to a new, global approach to online safety that supports our democratic values and promotes a free, open and secure internet. The Government will look to work with other countries to build an international consensus behind it. We will seek to work with international partners to build agreement and identify common approaches to keep citizens safe online. Having these relationships will support the UK’s ability to put pressure on companies whose primary base is overseas.

Since the White Paper was published earlier this month, the reaction has been generally positive. Noble Lords who spoke in the earlier debate, and Members in the other place, welcomed the Government’s action in this crucial area, and much, although not all, of the media coverage has also been supportive. However, I would like to focus on a couple of areas where our proposals have come under close scrutiny.

First, there has been comment in some newspapers that the measures we have set out in the White Paper will fetter the freedom of the press. I reassure noble Lords that that is not the case. The Government strongly support press freedom and editorial independence. A vibrant, independent, plural and free press that is able to hold the powerful to account is essential to our democracy. Journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework that we are putting in place. Furthermore, the regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to protecting users’ rights online—in particular, their privacy and freedom of expression. The regulator will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online.

There is a question of whether newspapers’ comment sections will fall within the scope of the online regulator. We are consulting on proposals for the statutory duty of care to apply to companies that allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. However, as the Secretary of State made clear in the other place, where these services are already well regulated, as is the case with IPSO and Impress regarding their members’ moderated comment sections, we will not duplicate those efforts.

The second area where concerns have been expressed since the White Paper’s launch concerns the potential burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises. Companies within scope will include SMEs and start-ups, but a key element of the regulator’s approach will be the principle of proportionality. The regulator will be required to assess companies according to their size and resources. The regulator will also take a risk-based approach, focusing initially on companies whose services pose the biggest risk of harm to users, based on factors including the scale of the service. The regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to innovation— indeed, the regulatory framework set out in the White Paper is pro innovation and will preserve the openness and enterprise that lie at the heart of the UK’s flourishing tech sector.

I believe that we have both a duty to act to protect UK citizens and an opportunity to lead the world on this issue. I firmly believe that this White Paper is a valuable step forward in creating a safer and stronger internet that works for the benefit of all humankind. To get this right, we will need to work with our civil society, our technology sector and, of course, Members of both Houses. We are consulting on the White Paper and have already received around 1,000 responses. As part of that, I am looking forward to hearing noble Lords’ contributions. I beg to move.