Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour 6:32 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, I too am extremely grateful to the Chief Whip for allowing time for what is already proving to be a worthwhile and timely debate, and to the Minister for introducing it in such a positive manner. I entirely sympathise with the Government’s instinct to focus on the most obvious forms of online harm, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, the promotion of terrorism and threats of actual violence. The Government’s proposals in these areas are, on balance, carefully thought through and proportionate. They represent a bold attempt to tackle some of the more damaging features of the digital age and are based on a duty of care—a principle I have long advocated in relation, for example, to what I believe to be the responsibilities of the media to ensure informed democratic debate. I hope it will not be self-promoting to mention that in 2012, I did a TED talk under the auspices of this House on this subject. It has to date been seen by almost 1 million people, so there is no doubt that there is interest in this area.

In the time available this evening, I would like to touch on other forms of harm which in my view are insufficiently addressed in the White Paper. The harms I refer to were identified by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill—sadly, she is not in her place—in response to the Statement on 8 April as being,

“harms to public goods, democracy, culture and the standards of the media”.

She made the point that the White Paper,

“deals with only part of the problem”.—[Official Report, 8/4/19; col. 433.]

As your Lordships have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, during her recent appearance before the DCMS Select Committee on this White Paper, Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, said—I will quote her a little more fully—that she was,

“surprised and disappointed that there was not more focus on a huge societal harm, which is electoral interference, and on the need for more transparency in political advertising”.

Like others, I entirely share the commissioner’s disappointment.

We are only too familiar with the pernicious and corrosive effects of online propaganda in the form of disinformation, which has already had a distorting effect on almost every area of our domestic and democratic lives. Much of that distorting effect has been caused by a worrying lack of understanding of how easily we can all be manipulated. Anyone doubting the impact of that manipulation has only to turn to the recent DCMS Select Committee report on Disinformation and Fake News. As that report accurately states:

“In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices”.

Many people have rightly commended the Government’s White Paper for being a global trailblazer in its strategy for tackling online harms. However, I doubt whether I will be the only Member of your Lordships’ House to seek a far greater level of clarity, energy and, crucially, investment in what the White Paper describes as digital literacy. In their White Paper, the Government rightly argue that the promotion of digital literacy has a wide range of benefits,

“including for the functioning of democracy by giving users a better understanding of online content and enabling them to distinguish between facts and opinions online”.

This is an entirely laudable objective, but we have been here before. In fact, it was 15 years ago, in relation to the media literacy responsibilities of Ofcom, as set out in what became the Communications Act 2003, which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has already referred to today. I am sorry to report that successive Governments, including those of my own party, never seriously grasped—let alone ensured—the delivery of Ofcom’s obligations regarding what the White Paper has now accurately rechristened digital literacy. It is true that for a decade, Ofcom made efforts to address this issue but the specific grant used for that purpose was phased out by DCMS several years ago.

It will be argued that some technical research has been published, but surely that is a woefully inadequate response to the real task at hand: to equip present and future generations with the ability to assess the vast swathes of misinformation, even outright lies, which now proliferate across the internet—whether on social media, blogs or what can at first glance appear to be credible news websites. Had we seriously risen to that task, we might have avoided at least some of the deeply troubling outcomes we now face. We could have made a better job of preparing ourselves for the worst impacts of the environmental crisis that millions of young people now rightly warn us against. Even the result of the referendum might have been different if those aged between 18 and 23 had fully understood the importance of an informed vote for their own futures, and the degree to which they were capable of being marginalised and manipulated in the new digital world.

Any 10 year-old at the time of the Communications Act 2003 will now be aged 26. We are talking about literally millions of voters who, with a better understanding of the power of misinformation, could have demanded a more honest debate on the ramifications and potential outcomes of what for many of them may well have been a life-defining moment. It is estimated that 64% of young people aged 18-24, or 3.6 million out of a total of 5.7 million, turned out to vote in the referendum. Of that 64%, it is further estimated that almost three quarters—2.6 million—voted to remain. Surely it is now imperative that as legislators, we develop a laser-like focus on ensuring that people, especially the young, are equipped with the best means to ensure that never again can our democratic processes be subject to the kind of distortions we all suffered in the months and weeks leading up to 23 June 2016. Consider this hypothesis, if your Lordships will: had all that age group voted in the same proportion as those who did engage, the result would have been a remain victory by over half a million votes. That is how important a truly informed and fully participatory democracy is to our and their futures.

The sad truth is that in a digital age, we cannot regulate misinformation out of existence. Those days, if they ever existed, have long since passed. Instead, we need to take unambiguous responsibility for putting tools in the hands of users to enable them to distinguish between fact and fiction. This is far from being a new problem but its scale has increased exponentially and its new forms are extremely challenging for any Government to combat. When he replies, will the Minister give the House some assurance that DCMS, the Home Office and the Department for Education are actively working together and prepared to invest time, effort and energy into correcting a lamentable decade of inaction?

I close by quoting from a speech made to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925 by the then President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge:

“Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control … It has always been realized, sometimes instinctively, oftentimes expressly, that truth and freedom are inseparable …The public press”— he was speaking at a time when newspapers were pretty well the only form of information—

“under an autocracy is necessarily a true agency of propaganda. Under a free government it must be the very reverse. Propaganda seeks to present a part of the facts, to distort their relations, and to force conclusions which could not be drawn from a complete and candid survey of all the facts … propaganda seeks to close the mind while education seeks to open it. This has become one of the dangers of the present day”.

As this Bill moves through the House, I will be arguing that digital misinformation has become the greatest single danger to our democracy and that to pretend otherwise is to risk fatally undermining it.