Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Conservative 6:23 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I am very happy to follow the right reverend Prelate, and I agree with much of what he says. I do not quite agree with him on everything, but I will come to that in a moment.

Generally I welcome this White Paper. During my time as a Member of the European Parliament, I became what is loosely termed as an Internet Watch Foundation champion. I do not think I have ever been a champion of anything, but I was very happy to support the Internet Watch Foundation, which has done enormously good work for many years detecting and trying to deal with instances of abuse on the internet. In fact, quite a long time ago, in 2011, I was the European Parliament negotiator when it was decided that child pornography and material facilitating child abuse should be removed from the internet whenever possible, and blocked when removal was not possible. Of course, at that time, there were not really the levers or tools in place to help deal with these matters. The IWF continues to do good work, and I hope it continues to be part of what it has always regarded as a partnership approach, in the new regulatory framework.

I disagree a little with the right reverend Prelate, and, it seems, with some colleagues, on this question of self-regulation. We should also be aware that in hosting websites, there has been much greater success in this country than in others in removing content. That has, until now, inevitably been part of a self-regulatory approach. I welcome the setting up of a regulator, although my experience of other regulators is a little mixed. Regulators have to have clear powers and be able to enforce the regulations that they are responsible for. I certainly welcome the suggestion of codes of conduct for the industry—the service providers—but in preparing these it is vital that we have full consultation, as I know we are currently having on the White Paper, with industry and with relevant NGOs, including the Internet Watch Foundation and the law enforcement authorities.

Also, any proposals must be adaptable. I was dealing with this matter in 2011, but even before that, we were aware of the emergence of the internet, but did not fully understand how it would develop. Therefore, we need to think of this as being part of what I would describe as smart legislation—we need to ensure that we can adapt and change when the circumstances and the technology change. I think a co-operative approach—a partnership basis—should remain in place, as well as having a regulator to deal with some of the worst offences or threats, because if you take away this partnership approach and this self-regulatory element, you will have great difficulties in maintaining the necessary good will, which is very important, particularly in dealing with something that is not just British, not just domestic, but is essentially very international in its implications.

The regulatory regime should be a last resort, if other means are not achieving the ends you need. There is an inherent risk in what is being proposed here, that it could lead to legalistic and obstructive action, with proscription replacing persuasion or agreement, sometimes with positive outcomes. The good intentions of a regulator must not stamp on or pre-empt the good will I referred to, and the voluntary rectification, but as I have said, the UK is, in many ways, in the lead. We are not the worst country. We are not a country where these abuses are particularly noted. We have the fastest removal rates for offensive material in the world. Industry has responded to concerns, and new tools such as web-crowding technology, image classifiers, image hashing and webpage blocking are regularly deployed. That is why I think it is best to mix punitive measures fairly with maximum co-operation. Child sexual abuse imagery hosted in the UK is now at a lower level than it was 15 years ago. Of 105,000 webpages found to contain such material in 2018, only 41 of them were hosted in the United Kingdom. That is nothing to be proud of in international terms, but it shows that our hosting, and the effects of what we are trying to do with host sites, are having some results.

The National Crime Agency estimates that at least 80,000 people regularly view child sexual abuse images in the UK. However, they are viewing them mostly on sites hosted outside this country. One of the White Paper’s conclusions is that the proposed regulator’s powers may not, in my opinion, have a sufficiently open-door approach to those who wish to report offensive material. There is reference to the need for redress and to have a very effective redress system. However, it needs more than that. We need to make sure that the regulator is working not just in isolation but with others, as I said before.

Regarding the funding of a possible new regulator, we would obviously look first to industry to pick up the bill. That is important, but the right reverend Prelate spoke about GambleAware. Speaking as a former Gambling Minister—I may have put that wrongly; I meant as a Minister formerly responsible for gambling in this country—comparisons with GambleAware and Drinkaware are probably not terribly helpful because this is a very different case. In those cases, the drink and gambling industries come forward with proposals to suggest limitation on activity, whereas of course we are talking about elimination rather than limitation.

Finally, I would like to refer to the current provisions mentioned in the White Paper. I think one or two noble Lords have also referred to them. First, I am sure your Lordships will be delighted if I mention that there is quite a lot of EU material here. The EU e-commerce directive of 2000 was referred to a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. That directive was certainly important but it did not make service providers liable for content; it made them obliged to remove illegal content but there was no obligation under article 15 to continue the monitoring of those sites in a way that I suggest we think they should be.

Secondly, the big point is that I was a shadow rapporteur on the EU general data protection regulation. Now that is important legislation, and it will have an impact here not on everything but certainly on the activities of the regulator and the areas of redress. When my noble friend the Minister winds up this debate, perhaps he could make further reference to those EU regulations and directives. How are we going to ensure that in an international setting, with the clear pressures now on us in this area, we are able to replicate them and ensure that our colleagues elsewhere in the world, where much of the abuse of the internet is coming from, will continue to comply with standards and a quality of approach equivalent to that which we have ourselves?