Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:41 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 6:41 pm, 30th April 2019

I am talking about the earlier Oral Statement on the social media summit.

In the past 18 months, we have seen the internet become less safe and more dangerous, for everyone, but in particular for children and young people, who I have a particular interest in. I am not going to talk about the technical aspects of how we might regulate the internet: I am no expert on bandwidth et cetera and the only generation I am interested in is the one currently growing up. I have read about 3G, am using 4G and am reading about the opportunities and threats of 5G.

We must ensure that the next generation of computers, and those who profit massively from the industry, exercise a duty of care. Current and future generations of children and young people must be protected so that they can enjoy a fraction of the innocence that we enjoyed. We spent time and money on the thing called the watershed, in an attempt to prevent children watching adult content on terrestrial TV channels. We pay the staff at the British Board of Film Classification to watch every film for which general release is sought, giving each film an age rating. We have established the Video Standards Council to rate video games. Imagine the uproar there would be if the 10 o’clock news had shown the shootings in New Zealand or beheadings by ISIS. However, as the House has heard, when it comes to the internet the only regulation is self-regulation. Even Mr Zuckerberg, one of the worst villains of the internet piece, makes billions while crying crocodile tears about the need for external regulation.

When a gentleman called Mr Ford began to make motor cars, it was soon realised that they could do serious physical damage to people and property. To minimise the damage, a decision was taken to regulate cars; abolishing them was not an option. In England, we have stringent rules on who can drive, the speed at which cars are driven and how drivers must follow the Highway Code. Parents—most of them—teach their children how to cross the road safely. This is reinforced in schools and, as children begin to use roads as cyclists, they are taught how to keep themselves safe. Similarly, car makers are strictly regulated in terms of the safety of passengers and, increasingly, the damage to the environment.

However, the internet, the 21st-century Wild West, seems to have more than its fair share of bandits but no sheriffs to take them on. The internet is, as yet, totally unregulated and is driven by just two motives: making bigger profits or reducing costs. The reason why pornography, to take just one example, is so easily available on the internet is because the internet giants make unbelievably huge amounts of money, directly and indirectly, by hosting pornography sites.

Of course, everyone agrees that young people should not watch extreme violence or pornography and the industry shadow-boxes with parental filters and age limits. However, the research shows that parental filters are easily evaded and age limits are totally ineffective. A decade ago, in a committee room in this House, there was a seminar on the dangers posed to children by the internet. There was unanimity, even then, from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, Vodafone and Google, that the internet genie was out of the bottle. Since then, successive Governments have talked the talk about protecting children and young people from the hell which is only three clicks away, but no serious attempt has been made to regulate the internet.

I support this White Paper and congratulate the Government on bringing it forward. We should present this not as an attack on freedom of expression but as allowing freedom of expression which does not damage the most vulnerable. I see this as the start of a process. We know that the industry is lobbying hard to protect its profits. We have all heard how it is difficult—which means expensive—to stop offensive and illegal content being readily available.

I pause to reflect on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about the threat to our society and democracies. We have seen how that has gone on: the presidential election in America was probably affected by bots targeting literally millions upon millions of people. As political parties, we use social media to campaign and we do it in a very effective way, but in the wrong hands these means can be used to turn against democracy. I hope that the Government and the Minister will think hard, in detail, about the points that the noble Lord made.

Internet companies say, “There is nothing we can really do about this”, but just look at what is happening in China. Xi Jinping manages to block anything that does not fit in with his socialist China, often with the agreement of the internet giants themselves who go along with what he says to ensure their presence in the country. I am not suggesting that we have the same regime as China, but it is possible to put in place algorithms and filters which stop the most harmful effects of the internet. As a Liberal Democrat, I am in favour of individual freedoms, but we also have a duty to ensure that that freedom is constrained by the rights of others.

Children have the right to a childhood, and schools need to educate children to be responsible users of social media. Parents must be empowered to protect their children through digital literacy, advice and support. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at the area of support to schools. The Government will say that schools should be doing more and giving education. The problem is that we have a subject called PSHE—personal, social and health education—which many of us have said should be taught in all schools, but of course academies and free schools can choose not to do PSHE or choose not to talk to children about the problems of ensuring internet safety. Unless we regulate the internet to keep our children safe, we will continue to pay a very high price. Parents of children who have committed suicide know how high that price is.