Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:55 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 5:55 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and I certainly want to follow the spirit of his intervention. Last Thursday, we had something of a dress rehearsal for this debate when we discussed the Communications Committee report UK Advertising in a Digital Age.

In the course of that debate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham quoted his son saying:

“Dad, you haven’t a clue … I have been raised in this digital world. I am inside it, day in and day out. You just don’t get it and your generation will struggle to”.—[Official Report, 25/4/19; col. 725.]

I was particularly sensitive to those comments because I suspect that my own children, all in their 20s, have a similar view of my capabilities. I am happy that my noble friends Lady Grender, Lady Benjamin and Lord Storey, all more savvy in this area than I am, will follow.

The truth is that the gap in comprehension between legislators and practitioners was there for all to see when the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, appeared before a Senate committee. The question out there is whether the Government and Parliament—as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, has just indicated—are flexible and nimble enough to address genuine public concerns and stay ahead of the curve as some of these technologies develop at breakneck speed. Perhaps it is a job for the Youth Parliament rather than this one. As I said last Thursday, many of our procedures and conventions have their roots in the 18th century not the 21st. In approaching this, therefore, we have to look not only at the legislation but at how we consult and involve people in introducing steps as we go forward.

As the Minister has said, there has been a general welcome for the direction of travel proposed by the White Paper. There are harms which need to be addressed, as demonstrated by the list referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and as explained to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood, in the Statement that preceded this discussion.

It is true that the White Paper is not without its critics. Last week, in evidence to a DCMS sub-committee, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, expressed surprise and disappointment that the White Paper had not,

“done a comprehensive examination of political advertising and oversight that’s needed in this space”,

and the Electoral Commission has called for a range of measures to strengthen its oversight and promote transparency in digital campaigning. The Alliance for Intellectual Property caught some of the points made by the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, about the effect on business. It said:

“The paper fails to address the harmful activity that affects businesses, in terms of revenue generation, investment and creative innovation”.

Another group, Defend Digital Me, warns against giving the Home Office carte blanche to regulate the internet, saying that children must not be the excuse that is talked up into a reason enabling greater control of the internet by the Home Office. It expresses particular concern about paragraph 21 of the White Paper.

There are real and present dangers out there to be addressed, but also concerns that ill thought-out measures could undermine some of the real benefits that the internet has brought us. The challenge is to produce an internet that is open and vibrant, yet also protects its users from harm. The days are long gone when public opinion was content to see the internet as a kind of Wild West beyond the rule of law. We have now reached a situation where Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said:

“If the rules for the internet were being written from scratch today, I don’t think people would want private companies to be making … decisions around speech, elections and data privacy without a more … democratic process”.

Quite so.

Nor are we starting from an entirely blank sheet of paper. In the Information Commissioner, we have someone with authority and respect both at home and abroad. We have an Electoral Commission that will need extra resources and new powers to protect our democracy from abuse carried out using new technologies. Ofcom, a creation of the Communications Act 2003, has proved a highly successful and respected regulator. We also have good examples of international co-operation in the field. The EU general data protection regulation is now embedded in the Data Protection Act 2018 and is a good example of addressing online harms via international co-operation. I understand that the GDPR is now being looked at by a number of other jurisdictions, which are using it as a template for their own legislation. Taking up the point that the Minister made in his opening remarks, I see no reason why we should not aspire to global conventions which the whole world can adopt.

In so doing, we must be aware that elsewhere in the world, authoritarian Governments are attempting to insulate themselves from transparency and accountability by trying to curb and shackle the internet, precisely because of its ability to shine light into dark corners. Of course we want to see the freedom of the press upheld. I think the technology is taking us into difficult areas here. There is an overlap between print media organisations and their online publications, and there are questions about where the various jurisdictions apply. Before those organisations get too indignant, it is interesting to note that the worst offender following the Christchurch tragedy was Mail Online, which continued to carry a video of the tragedy, and the manifesto behind it, long after Facebook had taken them down.

The White Paper paints a very broad canvas and, as I have cited, critics call for more action and greater safeguards. I just wonder whether draft legislation would not benefit from pre-legislative scrutiny along the lines of the Puttnam committee, which examined the Communications Bill in 2002 and on which I served. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in his place. That committee held hearings in public and on the air. As a Joint Committee, it was able to draw on strengths and experiences from both Houses.

By the end of the process, we will have a suite of powerful regulators overseeing these matters: the new super-regulator envisaged by the White Paper, the ICO, Ofcom, a better resourced and empowered Electoral Commission and a revitalised CMA. But how will they work together? Who will report to whom? Will some take responsibilities already held by other regulators? There is a lot of thinking to be done. In the Statement the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood, spoke about a need for coherence in the way government approaches this. I wonder how interdepartmental co-operation will be achieved. Will there be a special Cabinet committee on this? How will that coherence across Whitehall be achieved?

Parliament, too, will have to give careful thought to how best it links in with this new regulatory framework, either by creating a Standing Committee of both Houses or perhaps by creating an advisory committee akin to the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, consisting of those best qualified to give advice on new developments in technology which would allow government and Parliament to future-proof as best we can, while keeping oversight of the new technologies within democratic control.

I hope this does not do too much damage to the reputation of the Secretary of State for DCMS, but I worked with him for a couple of years in the coalition Government. I have always admired his lawyerly calm. This will be much needed as we move ahead in this area. There will be great pressure on us to do something quickly. There is obviously a need to bring forward statutory regulation and there will be a need for education and training, to which some of my colleagues will refer. As well as the need to move quickly, there is also a need to get it right. Perhaps in helping to achieve that end, this House might yet prove its usefulness to my children and to the son of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.