Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 30th 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) 5:45 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I am very happy to contribute to the positive way in which the Minister has presented the case. I am delighted that, as promised by the Government, time has been made for adequate consideration of the issues in this debate. However, I am disappointed that more people are not here. There was such a swell of enthusiasm when this matter came before us the first time that I thought we would have a much better-peopled debate and a longer list of speakers. However, we are here and the ideas are waiting to be explored.

I am happy that this debate is taking place during the period of consultation and I hope that the record of this debate will contribute to the documentation being considered. It will make it 1,001 contributions thus far.

Bold claims have been made for what is hoped to be the result of this process. By the way, it is good to start with a White Paper and with regular rounds of conversations. The bold claims include the Government saying that they are going create the safest place to be online and that this will be a world first, with no one having done it before. They also say that it could be part of a global response to perceived needs in this area. I feel that we are making something available for our country by way of regulation in respect of a global industry that is very difficult to contain within any framework that I can imagine. We will be hearing from various speakers about regulation, so I shall not deal with that now. The duty of care has already been mentioned. I wish that the digital charter had crept somewhere into the narrative because there are lots of ethical issues that would make it very appropriate to consider it.

There is much else in the White Paper but I want to focus on the list of harms on page 31. I shall not go through them all but I note the three columns headed “Harms with a clear definition”, “Harms with a less clear definition” and “Underage exposure to legal content”. There is a list beneath each heading. I want to compare those lists with the ones that appear in another DCMS document. I was reading it not for this debate, to be quite honest, but for the debate last week on advertising and the internet. It came out of the same stable as the White Paper. I am calling it the Plum report because that is what is on the front cover. It is called Online Advertising in the UK. It was commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and it was published in January 2019, when drafts of the White Paper must have been in DCMS. As I said, it is from the same stable. On pages 17 to 19 of this report there are three lists of potential harms to be found online. They have different names from those in the White Paper: individual harms, societal harms and economic harms. This document was produced with the debate on the Communications Committee’s report on advertising and the internet in mind, and to feed into the Cairncross report on local journalism. But the two lists—in the White Paper and the Plum report—must be looked at together. They are rather unlike each other and point to things that we dare not ignore.

After the debate on the Statement, to which the Minister referred, I had a conversation on the Floor of the House with the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, who I am sorry to say is not in her place today. She was worried about the absence in the White Paper of any reference to economic harms. I do not believe she was thinking about the responsibilities of small and medium-sized businesses, which would be the same, proportionately, as those of other institutions and bodies; she was talking about online harms to these small and medium-sized businesses. These concerns have been picked up by other commentators too.

The list of economic harms in the Plum report includes:

“Product bundling and exclusivity … ‘Walled Gardens’”,

on which stakeholders express concern that it is hard,

“to export user ID data collected during advertising campaigns”.

The list also includes:

“Lack of transparency in programmatic display … Differential treatment”— whereby some companies are given better treatment and so on—as well as “leveraging”, “engagement with industry initiatives”, in which market players “do not always adopt” industry standardisation, and “control of web browsers”. It is quite a list, and of a different kind from the one in the White Paper. I wanted to keep these lists together.

After that same debate, I had another conversation, this time with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. It is always a frightening experience to talk to the noble Baroness; she is clever and I do not feel that I am. If I felt even a little clever, I would feel much less so after a conversation with her than I did when I began. She is a quite remarkable woman, whose recent publications are on the subject of trust. Her earlier work was on Immanuel Kant, whom I have barely ever understood; the right reverend Prelate will be better versed in him than I am. These books on trust, however, seem to be looking, as a philosopher should, at a very important subject. Anyway, in this conversation, the noble Baroness expressed her worries about the lack of reference in the White Paper to societal harms. She and I have been greatly impressed by—and shared our impressions of—the recent book Democracy Hacked by Martin Moore, which looks forensically at the damage done online to our democratic institutions.

On societal harms, the list revealed in the Plum report is again very revealing. It includes,

“financial support for publishers of offensive or harmful content”— that is, providing means of monetisation for those creating harmful content on platforms—as well as discrimination, which can occur either by design or inadvertently when advertisers target data to categorise people by gender, ethnicity and race. The list also includes “non-transparent political advertising”, whereby anonymous actors may “influence elections and referendums”.

It is interesting that in tomorrow’s Oral Questions, the noble Baroness will ask a Question on this subject. I am sure she will want to quote the sympathy of the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, on this very matter. The contribution I want to make as the subject opens up today is to identify and, in some way, feel comfortable with, the range of online harms that we are referring to. They tend to be, as in the White Paper, to do with the plight of individuals. If that is the desired outcome, it ought to be said clearly that this is what we are dealing with. But online harm is a much more generic term and the economic and societal aspects deserve to be mentioned.

I conclude by saying that the Secretary of State has set himself a very difficult target. He wants a Bill that will put the UK’s house in order on a truly global matter of concern. How that will be done we wait to see. The proposals aim to get the right balance between the long-overdue regulation in this area and continuing adherence to the principles of free speech; the Minister has already given assurances on that. He is also looking to produce legislation that, while he gives it his best attention, will be overtaken by rapid development in the field of technology, even as we debate the Bill. We must look for a Bill that is light on its feet, flexible and can be put to work, rather than something static, heavy and fixed that will be out of date as soon as it becomes an Act of Parliament.

I look forward to hearing other views because, at this stage, this is a conversation. I look forward to shaping a document that, ultimately, will go beyond what we are comfortable with as a step in the right direction and needs to go much further.