Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop 6:13 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, this is a vast subject, and I will limit my comments to just a few areas.

I and others on these Benches welcome this White Paper, in particular the attempt to rethink the way we see this whole area. In the past we brought in individual laws to deal with particular problems. My colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford has been arguing for some while that we need to see this as public space. We need to try to understand how we can regulate it from first principles in a way that guarantees the freedoms we want and the huge benefits that have come through the online world, which has made a huge and incalculable difference to our lives, but also protects the many people who are vulnerable. We have heard some account of just some of the problems some people have faced.

If the Government are to achieve the aim of making this country the safest place in the world to go online, we need to learn from other industries that are also seeking to be regulated. The whole question that I have been most closely associated with and have taken a particular interest in is regulating the gambling industry. It seems to me that there are a number of parallels that we need to take on board if we are to think about what might be the appropriate way of regulating.

It has been encouraging that the Gambling Commission has taken a stronger line on an industry that in the past performed abysmally in its duty of care to its customers. If companies such as Facebook, Snapchat or YouTube are to behave, the regulators will need to have significant powers and there will need to be real independence. Yet, if they look at some of the other regulators, why on earth are they going to fear? For example, just as the gambling industry’s gross gaming yield continues to grow far into the billions, Facebook’s revenue is now around £55 billion per annum. The substantial fines that we were being perennially promised in the battle to combat wrongful behaviour are very modest and really do not make the companies blink for one moment. Indeed, some cynics have been arguing that some of these companies simply budget in the fines as part of their ongoing business so that they can keep going as they have in the past. Similarly, the largest fine Facebook has received from a UK watchdog is around £500,000. These companies are in a totally different league. Therefore, there is a question about not only how we regulate them but how we get them to engage with the wider debate about the sort of world we want to create.

When I speak with families who have lost loved ones to gambling-related harms, they want to know why companies rarely lose their licences. It appears that the larger high street companies have little to fear that that might be the case. Putting it very bluntly, one of the questions I want to ask is: could it be envisaged, under the proposals as they emerge, that some of these companies could actually find their licences being revoked if they are not able or willing to deliver the public goods we need them to deliver?

The White Paper, I suppose not surprisingly, gives limited details on the funding and membership of the regulator and the regulatory body. I would be very concerned if a solely industry-funded organisation might lead to a culture of mistrust, especially surrounding the urgent need to have independent research and scrutiny. The regulator and any regulatory bodies need to be completely independent of the industry. We will be kidding ourselves if we do not think that the industry is already recruiting and deploying people to lobby individual Members of both Houses. I am sure that is already going on.

But all this is irrelevant if the regulators themselves are ignored. Again going back to gambling, the issue I have been closely associated with, last week I was surprised to see that the Minister for Sport and Gambling appeared to dismiss a call for a mandatory levy, just minutes after the chair of the industry regulator had precisely called for one. Can the Government pledge to this House that any similar tough calls from the regulator will be championed, not rejected?

I have one or two other concerns that I want to touch on at this early stage of the discussion we are having, as we set out various issues to be debated. For example, the White Paper clearly highlights the use of addiction by certain sorts of products online. This is about not just gambling but gaming. The evidence has been growing very consistently that many things online can be hugely addictive; indeed, they are designed to keep you online for long periods. Many people will be aware that one of the issues is that a large proportion of company profits stem from the small problem of people who are addicted to gambling, gaming or whatever it is. Indeed, they rather rely on it for their profits. Yet we do not seem to have much in this White Paper about how to deal with these products, which are designed to be addictive. This is something that was picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in her report Disrupted Childhood.

What are we going to do to address these things taking hold of people’s time and energy, and in some cases becoming quite obsessive? For example, will future legislation require gaming companies to have a “pause” function, allowing people to stop and take a breath? What about the mechanism to regulate “dark nudges”, which I have been reading about? People with potential addictions find that, at just the moment they try to come off, some extra new thing is offered to them in an uncanny way that seems to have been designed to do so. These are particularly problematic when you talk to people who are recovering or are addicts. How are we going to address these issues? With so many online companies using addictive products, it would be good for many users if an as yet unnamed future regulator ensured we had some research on how to deal with this sort of issue.

I dread to think of the Minister thinking that a regulator is going to be a silver bullet. This is a much bigger societal issue that we have to go on debating. I am concerned that, while the White Paper portrays the experience of the gambling sector as a land illuminated by sunlit uplands, all due to an industry regulator, that is not how it appears to many of the addicts or their families who have lost loved ones. Vulnerable people and children using the internet deserve the right level of regulation. That will involve some self-regulation, though I have to say that in my experience, talking with people, self-regulation is not working very well in other industries. Just last week, Snapchat was revealed to have extraordinarily weak standards of age verification.